Philadelphia’s process for managing damaged fire hydrants was brought into the digital age late last year with a new reporting app. The city’s Fire Department now transfers data about the condition of hydrants from the new app through mobile data terminals (MDTs), cutting down on processing time and saving money.

The city previously spent $17,000 per year to print out manila survey cards used to notate the condition of the city’s 27,000 hydrants. The cards were given to the Water Department, which spent about a week to manually enter the information into a database. Thanks to the app, the extra data entry step has been eliminated, allowing the Water Department to schedule hydrant repairs sooner.

The JavaScript-based ArcGIS application enables the Fire Department to enter hydrant data once, and it is transferred on a daily basis to the Water Department’s database. According to Charles Zitomer, director of field operations for the Water Department, both departments had been talking about a more modern solution that improved the data entry process for years.

The hydrant application was conceived and developed through inter-departmental cooperation and a strong foundation in GIS.

“We developed a GIS system for our infrastructure that was very, very good,” Zitomer said. “Very accurate, reviewed and scrutinized, and we staffed a GIS team to maintain that database and come up with maintenance procedures and protocols to make sure our GIS system was more and more accurate every day. We then leveraged that GIS system with all our infrastructure for various applications – hydraulic modeling of the system, some security concepts of the system.”

Zitomer added that a hydrant going out of service is a big deal, because it creates a safety hazard to the city. Once the city discovers a hydrant is out of service, the repair goes to the top of the Water Department’s to-do list.

“We have developed strong and good technology and really we’re going to find out about hydrant defects quicker, at a lower cost and really provide a better service to the citizens of Philadelphia in terms of fire protection,” Zitomer said.

Development Details

The app took about three months of work to develop. The project began in October 2012 and was finished around Christmas, but additional time was needed to get things configured on the back end, said Grant Ervin, public safety GIS program manager for the city. Ervin explained that the operational gains from the project are hard to quantify, but there are a lot of fringe benefits from digitizing the system and having data on the hydrants on one map.

“When [the Fire Department goes] out to do inspections, they’re not missing anything,” Ervin said, adding that there are no scraps of paper to get lost. “They’re not having to go out and look where they already were. It’s all in the system.”

Philadelphia uses Cityworks, a GIS-centric asset management solution, which was helpful during the project, according to Edward Schaefer, executive assistant for the Water Department. He said the solution is “pretty much an open database” that is easy for the city to connect to, write work orders, service requests, and inspections from outside applications.

Schaefer added that 311 is the next integration for Philadelphia which could help speed up the hydrant repair process. The city’s existing 311 system is already connected to their work order process, but a 311 app could provide another way to speed up the hydrant repair process. For example, if a car backs over a hydrant, a 311 mobile app user could report it and the Water Department would usually verify the report in the same day.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com