Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Hydrant Adapters

Here's a little local issue fer ya.

When you want to hook up a fire hose to a fire hydrant, you need to be sure that "tab A" and "slot B" are the same size. After the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, the State of California required that all equipment in the State must convert to 2½-inch hoses, so that any hose will connect to any hydrant. San Francisco won an exemption from the state law, because we use 3-inch hoses. The plan, in the event that San Francisco has a fire so huge that we need "mutual aid" from other nearby fire departments, is that the out-of-towners will go to one of four staging areas to be coördinated with the local units, and there they will pick up adapter thingies. The alternative strategy has been suggested of putting an adapter thingie on every San Francisco hydrant, so that San Francisco equipment will still be able to use 3-inch hoses but trucks with 2½-inch hoses can connect if we ever need them.

If your eyes glazed over reading that description, read it again out loud, because it's sine qua non crucial for your understanding.

The SFFD raised several points:

  1. SFFD has never called for mutual aid. Even in the 1989 fires in the Marina District after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, the SFFD handled everything on their own.
  2. If SF does ever need mutual aid for a huge fire, it will be essential to have those out-of-town responders plug into a single command structure. Fire trucks can't just drive to any place they see smoke. In an urban firestorm, just as in a rural forest fire, it is vital to have the firefighters focused where they will be most effective with the least possible danger to their own lives. A "rogue" fire truck would hinder, rather than help, the overall response.
  3. We've already given several adapter thingies to fire departments in Marin, San Mateo, and/or Alameda Counties, and they are the ones who would be responding anyhow if it ever happens.
  4. Spending $800,000 or more on adapter thingies just might not be the best use for that kind of money towards fire safety. How about giving us a few more boots on the ground? SFFD is below the staffing level it feels would best protect the city in the case of a major fire.
Okay. That is a pretty compelling case, but let's look at the other side of the discussion.
  1. It will only cost $800,000 total, and it doesn't have to be in one swell foop. This is a "one-time expenditure," rather than a recurring annual commitment. Also, we can phase it in over a couple or three years. (In any case we should prioritize a list of all the hydrants in the city.)
  2. It will simplify the dispatching of fire engines if we ever face a rapidly growing disaster. We can just tell the out-of-town crew, "Go to 20th & Dolores!" instead of "Go to 20th & Dolores — by the way, did you get a dongle thingie?"
  3. It just seems downright FEMA-ish to let the whole city burn to the ground for lack of a few adapter thingies.
But here are my questions on the issue:
  1. The SFFD has never requested mutual aid. Under what hypothetical situation would you cross that threshhold? Specifically, what are the scenarios of San Andreas fault earthquake, Hayward fault quake, and accidental or deliberate explosion, under which we would be unable to handle a fire on our own? How does that risk compare to a non-fire-related risk such as tsunami? (The entire California coast could be at risk from a tsunami caused by a subterranean rockslide, some scientists say. The tsunami would be much smaller but also much more likely than a mega-tsunami from a Japanese mega-earthquake.)
  2. Are we storing our back-up supplies of adapter thingies in some place where they'll be safe in case of an earthquake or other disaster? Are they in some place where they'll still be accessible? Or are they going to be buried in the rubble under a fire station that can't even get its trucks out because the door warped in the earthquake?
  3. If it doesn't make sense to spend the $800,000 now, or even over the next couple of years, what would be the best use of that kind of money, and how much would the city's safety benefit?
  4. More generally, how prepared are Bay Area and California officials to deal with a major disaster? Can a Hayward cop talk to an El Cerrito dispatcher? How about an East Bay Regional Parks District police officer and a Half Moon Bay dispatcher? Can we have a crazy quilt of radio frequencies and other equipment, or do we need to standardize? What is the best thing we can do right now to improve our preparedness?
  5. How many people reading this — whether you live in San Francisco or London or Sydney or Racine or Mobile — have even 2½ gallons (9½ litres) of water in case of earthquake / hurricane / [fill in the blank]? I may be underfed after 72 hours, but I will not die of dehydration!
[Thanks to the San Francisco Chronicle and KGO-7, among others, for their coverage of this issue.]