What do you do when sand dunes keep covering up your fire hydrants? Virginia Beach (VA) Master Firefighters Gary Brittingham and William Miller created a low-cost, low-maintenance, and easily implemented solution using PVC pipe, blue reflective tape, and a shovel.

Brittingham and Miller are assigned to Fire Station 17, located in a Virginia Beach summer cottage resort district that faces the Atlantic Ocean. Between tropical storms, hurricanes, and nor’easters, six- to 12-foot protected sand dunes continually shift and bury the fire hydrants that run parallel to the ocean. These summer cottages are built on stilts, and when a fire erupts it is intensified because air is getting to all sides of the structure. There have been many devastating fires in the Sandbridge section over the years, and it is vital to establish a water supply quickly. On many occasions, fire apparatus have had to slow down long before the fire scene and search for the hydrant, wasting valuable time.


Although there are several systems available for marking hydrant locations in deep snow that could have been adapted, Brittingham and Miller preferred a low-cost solution that would not destroy the sensitive dunes. Other markers were too expensive, requiring that they be put into the budget process.

Brittingham and Miller’s idea was simple. It used a 10-foot-long, two-inch-wide PVC pole with one end wrapped in a 14-inch band of blue reflective tape. The opposite end had a simple anchoring system in which two 3/4-inch-wide PVC pipes were inserted in holes drilled through the larger pipe, at right angles to each other so that the pole would stay seated in the soft sand. “We did not want kids pulling up on the PVC pipe and removing the poles,” Miller said. The anchoring system would be buried four to five feet in the sand; the remaining five feet would stand well above the hydrant for visibility. The poles would be installed in the sand no more than five feet away from the hydrant but not too close so as to interfere with using the hydrant wrench.

Brittingham and Miller presented the problem and the proposed solution to the Sandbridge Civic League. The firefighters were concerned that residents would not want another street sign marking hydrant locations along the roadway. The Civic League approved the idea and even offered financial assistance.


(1) Virginia Beach firefighters battle a fully involved home in the Sandbridge section. Fire hydrants covered by sand delay the water supply and increase the potential for fire spread. (Photos by author.) (2) A 14-inch band of blue reflective tape at the top of the pole ensures visibility. (3) For the anchoring system, drill two holes along the bottom of the pole at right angles to each other for one-inch PVC tubing. (4) The completed anchoring system. (5) The pole should be buried at least four or five feet in the ground so it cannot be pulled up out of the ground and will not be dislodged by high winds or flooding. (6) A marker post in place. It should be placed behind the hydrant if possible, but trees, flowers, shrubbery, and other obstructions may prevent this.

The firefighters made several prototypes and installed them along Sandfiddler Road. After dark, they drove around to confirm that the posts were visible. They left the posts up and waited for reactions from the community and the other department shifts. Receiving no negative responses, they made minor modifications to the design to limit the number of tools needed for construction. “We wanted to use material and tools that we could work with here at the fire station, like hand saws and shovels,” Brittingham said.

Brittingham and Miller wrote up the proposal describing the project, cost estimates, materials list, and projected completion time. This is “completed staff work,” which indicates that you have researched, thought out, investigated, and completed all paperwork for the project. They submitted the proposal to Battalion Chief Joseph Pozzo for review and consideration. He approved the idea and forwarded it to Chief Greg Cade, who immediately gave his approval and authorized implementation.


The two firefighters began producing the marker devices, assembling the poles and anchors in the fire station. They took turns installing the poles, using the brush truck so they could still respond to calls. This one-person operation required only a shovel to dig down the four to five feet to install the pole. Ultimately, they installed 25 hydrant markers. In addition to the poles, they also installed blue reflective markers in the middle of the road by every hydrant in their area. The markers cost $2 each and are simply glued with epoxy to the asphalt.


The entire project, including the PVC poles and blue reflective tape and markers, cost only $250.

This hydrant marking system saves time in locating hydrants, especially for the second- and third-due engine companies, which may not know the exact hydrant locations, especially during a storm. A hydrant can be buried overnight because of the strong winds along the coast.


The marker system is adaptable to similar situations in which hydrants may be hidden by snow, undergrowth, or flood debris. For areas with heavy snowfall, snowdrifts may be higher, requiring a taller pole and a contrasting color of PVC pipe.


  • Be proactive. Get out of your fire station and look around your response district to see what’s needed for enhanced response and operations. Identify and solve the problem before it results in disaster. Be proactive, not reactive.
  • Get community support. Consider the civic organizations such as the Rotary, Lions Club, or Elks. Attend a meeting to share your idea with the members-you may be surprised at their response. You may meet someone there who can bolster your project, interject new ideas, and even provide financial assistance.
  • Complete staff work! Provide fire department management with all the information it needs to make a wise decision. As on the fireground, the incident commander needs to know all the facts before issuing an order.

Brittingham and Miller’s efforts are a good example of helping the internal customer, the fire department, and the external customer, the citizens in their response district. This low-cost project may save valuable minutes searching for a fire hydrant and thousands of dollars in citizens’ property. Brittingham and Miller’s actions set an example of firefighters making a difference. If you have an idea, complete the research first; make a prototype; get community input and support; and present it to the department.

MARTIN C. GRUBE is a 23-year veteran of the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department and is currently assigned to the Fire Marshal’s Office as an assistant fire marshal. He is master firefighter, a Virginia-certified fire instructor, and the department historian and photographer.

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