The Brooklyn Park civic group is shoveling snow away from the fire plugs all winter as a community service project.
When Elks club state president Jerry Shoults began brainstorming community service projects for a local Elks branch, he came up with an idea based on personal experience: Shoveling out snow-covered fire hydrants.
During the winter, Shoults does his best to keep the hydrant near his Maple Grove home snow-free, which can sometimes become a daunting task. So he's well aware of the time that might be taken away from putting out fires if a hydrant is hidden.
It's an especially troublesome situation in light of increased fire risks in winter, with a lot of heaters, furnaces and candles all going at once. Circuits also get overloaded, which leads to electrical fires, and people are more closed-in and vulnerable, he said.
In October, Shoults talked strategy with Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Kenneth Prillaman, who pinpointed critical areas on a map near businesses, churches, schools, retirement homes and other gathering places where there's no point-person to look after the fire hydrants.
Meanwhile, 20 local Elks of all ages stepped forward to help shovel around 100 of about 3,500 fire hydrants citywide, which is probably as many as they can handle through the winter, Shoults said.
The massive snowstorm on Dec. 11, which dumped 17 inches of snow over parts of the metro area, left Shoults and his recruits to scramble. In terms of the need, "It was the right timing," he said, adding, "but as far as work goes, it increased the work."
The next day, a Sunday morning, the men paired off to tackle different sections of the city, including parts of 63rd, 109th, 85th and Zane avenues north, plus Brooklyn Boulevard.
On heavily plowed streets, there were huge snowbanks to contend with, including some that were 5 feet tall. Especially along 85th Avenue North, "It was unbelievable how much snow piled up on the curb," Shoults said.
Though it was barely 3 degrees, with lower wind chills, they muddled through, uncovering 85 hydrants in a few hours. Afterward, the shovelers reconvened at the Elks Lodge in Brooklyn Park, their clubhouse, for a rewarding chili cookout.
Everyone felt good about the day's work. "If we save one life or one building, we've accomplished a great deal," Shoults said. "It's such a small thing, but it can make a huge difference."
Prillaman agreed, saying the project is extremely helpful for firefighters.
While the department is constantly trying to keep fire hydrants clear, it can't get to them all. With so many to tend to, "It would cost thousands of dollars in labor to clear them out and respond to calls," he said.
For that reason the department, like many others, is calling on residents to adopt a hydrant, which involves clearing at least a 3-foot path around them. "Without community participation, we can't get to all of them," Prillaman said.
When firefighters arrive at a fire, spending time digging out hydrants is a game changer.
"If we have to stop to take five minutes to clear it out, we're talking about a significantly different fire compared to when we arrived," he said. "It's precious minutes that firefighters could be using to devote to other more critical tasks."
Shoults, who's semi-retired and drives a school bus, is a 32-year member of the Elks, a national fraternal organization that runs numerous charitable programs for youth, students and veterans.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.