The news: On July 8, a 4-year-old boy was fatally struck by an oncoming SUV as he played with water gushing from an open fire hydrant in Englewood on Chicago’s South Side.

Behind the news: Fire hydrants in the city’s predominantly black and Latino wards account for a vast majority of open or otherwise damaged hydrants.

In 2006, the Chicago Department of Water Management, which manages the city’s estimated 47,000 fire hydrants, received 38,774 complaints about fire hydrants. A Chicago Reporter analysis shows that, in the summer months of June and July of last year, 96 percent of these service requests were due to illegally opened hydrants, and 90 percent of such incidents were reported in black and Latino wards.

Larry Langford, spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department, said more fire hydrants on the South and West sides tend to be opened illegally by the public and used as a cooling device in the summer. He said unauthorized use of hydrants can often lead to damages. “If they’re opened illegally, they’re more subject to damage, and that damage has to be repaired,” he said.

Langford said another consequence of a damaged hydrant is that, in the event of a fire nearby, critical time would be lost for fire fighters to find alternative hydrants, and the area’s water pressure would also be low if multiple hydrants are opened in the area.

One way to prevent hydrants from being opened, and damaged, is to place tamper proof caps on each hydrant. According to the Chicago Department of Procurement Services, the city’s paying $10 million for the supply of the caps and other parts for the next 10 years. Tom LaPorte, spokesman for the Water Management Department, said about 12,500 caps have already been installed, with 10,000 more units expected to be installed.

Charmen Jackson, 42, a resident of Englewood, said hydrants in her neighborhood are frequently opened by children because they do not have the means of transportation to get to a beach or park district to cool off.

Jackson said she’s concerned that many Englewood hydrants might be low on water pressure when a fire starts in the neighborhood. “How’re they going to put it out with no water?” she said.

Shelley Zeiger

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