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Safety Check

Chris Gillingham and Seth Burkhalter have a leg up on every dog in Medford this summer as they make personal visits to each of the city's more than 3,800 fire hydrants.

This pair of future firemen are spending their summer systematically inspecting and flushing every hydrant in town to ensure they work properly, and in the process they're earning the city a deal on its insurance.

Maybe not exactly resume-worthy for some, but Gillingham and Burkhalter see it as a foot in the door of the city's Fire Department by getting to do what every urban kid wishes on a hot July day — dog-pee jokes aside.

"We're always showing kids the insides of the fire hydrants and letting them play in the water a little bit," says Gillingham, 31, a Medford native. "But it's not just kids. Literally everybody who walks by is interested in what we're doing."

Medford's hydrants are owned by the Medford Water Commission, which occasionally made sure that water flowed when the hydrants were turned on but never dedicated individual crews to them, said spokeswoman Laura Hodnett.

With its obvious stake in hydrant efficiency, the fire department last year took on the testing and gave it a new twist.

In the past, hydrant-checkers simply attached a hose and cranked on the water, but that posed some problems, says Justin Bates, Medford Fire-Rescue's operations chief.

Water spewing into roadways at times became a traffic hazard, and more than one landowner found some of their bark mulch and other landscaping accidentally washed away, he says.

Last summer, a couple of Medford firefighters created the system Gillingham and Burkhalter use.

Affixed to a pickup's hitch receiver is a circular metal diffuser from which a short hose is attached. The hose's other end attaches to the hydrant. With a crank from a large wrench, the valve turns on and the water rushes through the hose and diffuser to puddle on the gutter below.

The pair work off maps, moving west-to-east in grid style and knocking out 40 to 50 hydrants each per day.

"We anticipated they'd only get through half of them," Bates says. "They're pretty efficient."

So much so that they brought them back this summer for another round.

The hydrants are inspected to ensure they have proper clearance, to check the seals in the hydrant caps and to flush the hydrants of a year's worth of gunk.

Gillingham pulls next to a hydrant along West Medford's Palm Street and goes through the routine, checking items off on a sheet.

He cranks the wrench and an ugly brown stream of water burps through the diffuser and into the street.

"That's the gunk that we want to get out of there," he says.

The water eventually turns into the regular bottle-quality that Medford is known for, and about 100 gallons of it dribbles down Palm Street before Gillingham shuts it off.

The hydrants are called "dry hydrants" because they don't have water in them unless turned on. That way, frozen water won't crack them in winter.

The tests, which cost the city about $9,000 per summer, do more than ensure that hydrants work right when they're needed most, Bates says.

Regular inspections garner points toward grades that lower the municipality's insurance rates, Bates says.

Gillingham hopes it translates into a promotion from part-time hydrant guy to full-time firefighter.

"That's the ultimate goal — to work here in the valley," he says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Chris Gillingham checks a hydrant at the corner of Palm Street and Summit Avenue in Medford Tuesday. He and Seth Burkhalter are spending their summer checking the hydrants for Medford Fire-Rescue. - Jamie Lusch