When you imagine a fire hydrant, what color comes to mind? Does the color even matter? To the average person, possibly not. But to firefighters, the hydrant’s color is a thing they’re trained to notice.
When responding to a fire, every second counts. To save precious time, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends that hydrants be uniformly color-coded to indicate water-flow capabilities, so firefighters can assess their capabilities at a glance.
Per NFPA 291, the body of all public fire hydrants should be chrome yellow, unless another color has already been adopted as a standard for the community.
This fire hydrant's yellow color tells firefighters about its water-pumping capacity
The color-coding scheme comes into play on the tops and nozzle caps. The color reflects the rated water-flow capacity of that particular hydrant:
Based on the color, firefighters can determine the appropriate hose setup and pump operations for that hydrant, and whether a different hydrant would provide better water flow.
The different colors of these fire hydrants help firefighters quickly respond
The NFPA also encourages the use of reflective paint to increase visibility at night. To help firefighters distinguish public hydrants from private, they suggest private hydrants be painted a different color — preferably red.
Any hydrant with a pressure rating under 20 PSI (pounds per square inch) should have its rating stenciled in black on the top of the nozzle cap. The NFPA also recommends stencils for hydrants with very high pressure ratings, so firefighters can take proper precautions.
If a hydrant is temporarily out of service, it should be covered with a black bag, or something else that indicates it’s not to be used. Inoperative hydrants should be removed. Again, these recommendations are designed to give firefighters the information they need, quickly and visually.
NFPA 291 is not a law, it’s a guideline. This means not all fire districts follow the coding system. In some areas, the water district paints the hydrants. In others, the fire and water districts share this responsibility. It’s up to each municipality to determine if and how color-coding will be used. Washington State Legislature has issued minimum standards for fire hydrants but does not stipulate any color-coding.
Some fire-fighting professionals feel that color-coding is no longer relevant, since hydrant information is readily accessible on mobile devices. Others maintain that it’s still necessary for conveying information quickly and effectively.
Robert Ferrell, P.E., is WSRB’s Vice President of Public Protection. He leads the team that manages the insurance rating of cities, fire districts and building departments throughout Washington state. He has more than 25 years of experience in fire insurance rating.