Failure to replace an inexpensive component risks people and property
Standpipe systems make large and tall buildings safer by allowing firefighters to connect fire hoses to a water supply at convenient access points throughout a building. But it’s fire department connections (FDCs) – metal fixtures located on a building’s exterior – that first responders often use to pump water into standpipes. Without that water supply, manual standpipe systems are little more than empty pipes.
Unfortunately, theft, vandalism, and neglect leave many fire department connection swivels – a key component – temporarily inoperable. And while it can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to install a new fire department connection, many broken swivels can be fixed quickly and at little expense.
The life-and-death need for working fire department connection swivels
Swivels secure hoses to a building’s fire department connection. They’re designed to rotate quickly and with little effort and go nearly unnoticed during a firefighting incident.
FDCs with damaged or missing swivels are a different story, however. In a piece published at FireRescue1, inventor and retired fire captain Mike Cornelius recalled the incidents that led him to develop a tool for firefighters faced with a missing swivel, including an instance where his crew had to run fifteen stories worth of hose to fight a rooftop fire.
Cornelius realized that the frequency of stolen swivels – “as many as six missing swivels from a single building” – meant that the problem wasn’t going away.
"[The thief] has stolen the water supply," Cornelius said. "He has stolen a piece of the standpipe system. It would be like forgetting to bring a nozzle or a hydrant wrench to a fire."
Manufacturers and fire departments are rising to the challenge caused by missing swivels. Some fire departments now carry hose adapters – used when swivels won’t turn – or Mike Cornelius’s quick-connecting replacement swivels. Other manufacturers have developed swivels with built-in theft-reducing features.
Cities around the country have taken steps against FDC swivel theft by mandating the use of plugs with anti-theft features, including Columbus, Ohio (PDF); Monroe, Washington; Fort Worth, Texas; and Hillsboro, Oregon.
Westminster, Colorado firefighters provide a demonstration of fire department connections.
Still, theft isn’t the only threat to FDC swivels. In an article for Fire Engineering Magazine, Todd Connors of Clearwater Fire Rescue provides a photographic look (registration required) at problems facing fire department connections. It doesn’t matter whether swivels are stolen, missing, covered in concrete, or rusting outdoors – any problem can significantly delay firefighting efforts and force firefighters to make use of exhausting work-arounds.
Standpipe systems that fail to deliver water can have serious consequences for first responders and the high-rise structures where blazes are battled. In May 2017, The New Zealand Herald reported that a malfunctioning standpipe system in Auckland turned a skyscraper fire that should’ve lasted only seconds into a 40-minute effort – one that required firefighters to run hose up 27 stories.
Even worse was the tragic series of events at the Deutsche Bank building in New York City, where a 2007 fire on the 15th floor – prolonged by a disabled standpipe system – killed two firefighters and injured more than 100. Many planning and safety failures by contractors and fire officials placed those on the scene in the impossible situation of fighting a fire with empty hoses.
A basic overview of fire department connections
First responders’ high-rise firefighting efforts start with a functioning water supply, delivered through either an onsite pump or a fire department connection. Each fire department connection has at least one swivel, which creates a watertight path for water to travel from a fire engine or pump to the building’s standpipe or sprinkler system. Each fire department connection swivel has a size and threads of a particular make and diameter meeting the standards of local fire code.
A Siamese connection (FDC), shown with one swivel attached and one missing.
The fire department connection swivel rotates smoothly, allowing firefighters to quickly secure their hose to the FDC. This smooth movement is achieved with ball bearings, which reduce friction between the swivel and the body of the fire department connection. These ball bearings rest between two grooves – one on the body of the FDC, and the other on the swivel.
How to install a replacement FDC swivel
Broken or missing swivels can be replaced with a replacement swivel kit containing four parts: the swivel, ball bearings, a gasket, and a set screw.
If an old swivel needs to be removed, rotate the swivel and look for the head of a set-screw near the edge of the swivel where it meets the FDC’s body. Remove the set screw. The swivel should now slide off of the FDC’s body.
A groove should be exposed on the FDC where the body and the swivel meet. Ensure that the groove is smooth, even, and undamaged by rust.
Locate the threads inside the swivel. Insert the new gasket into the new swivel through the un-threaded end. Seat the gasket against the threads – not in the holed groove reserved for the ball bearings.
An inside view of the swivel without the gasket installed. Note the deep ball-bearing groove.
Place the swivel on the FDC body with the hole facing up. Align the groove on the swivel with the groove on the FDC body. Insert each ball bearing, one at a time:
Insert and tighten the set screw:
The swivel should now spin with a smooth, easy motion. If the cap or plug covering the FDC swivel is missing or damaged, you’ll need to replace it, too. While they’re not included with a swivel replacement kit, caps/plugs are relatively inexpensive (as low as five dollars for a plastic breakaway cap). They’re available in plastic, aluminum, and brass, and also vary according to the size and threading of your fire department connection.
An exposed FDC. Installed and working swivels still need caps or plugs to prevent debris from entering the system.
The swivels can be replaced for less than $60 – far less than the cost of an entire FDC. The size and threading of your swivel will depend on what’s required by local fire code. If you still have an existing swivel, you can measure its inside diameter, as pictured below, to determine your swivel’s size.
While your threads are likely one of a few standard types, getting the exact measurements required to identify threading can be extremely difficult – particularly if your swivel is missing. It’s a good idea to reach out to your local fire department to ensure that you’ve got the right threads and size.
To view QRFS' in-stock replacement swivels, click here. If you’d like to order a replacement swivel kit with different features — such as anti-theft protections or a different thread or size — call us at 888.361.6662 or fill out our contact form.