SFFD response to San Bruno explosion questioned

November 11, 2010 11:11:48 PM PST
In the two months since the San Bruno pipeline explosion, emergency officials have been working on after-action reports, trying to learn lessons for the next big disaster. The I-Team has been interviewing authorities involved and going over radio and cell phone traffic, and uncovered new questions about the response by the San Francisco Fire Department.

In the initial minutes following the explosion, early word was that a plane had crashed in San Bruno. Now, through dispatch recordings, the I-Team figured out how command staff at the San Francisco Fire Department helped spread that false report.

Just moments after the blast, an off-duty San Francisco firefighter who lives in San Bruno called into the department's command center on Turk Street.

"I've never seen such intense flames and I heard like a large impact," he told the dispatcher.

With homes on fire, a wide debris field and a huge, persistent flame, the firefighter believed it could be only one thing.

"And it must have been a jet that went down," he said.

The firefighter did not say he saw a plane go down, but that quickly became the story line from San Francisco fire command staff.

"So, Micky Lavelle just called up and said he saw a plane go down in San Bruno," a dispatcher told Deputy Chief of Operations Pat Gardner.

They pass on the false report to the San Mateo County Command Center, where they were busy dealing with the disaster.

SFFD Command: "Yeah, we had a off-duty fireman say he saw a plane go down." San Mateo County dispatcher

San Mateo County Dispatcher: "Yeah, no confirmation of that yet, but we're getting reports of that as well, so we don't have any confirmation."

SFFD Command: "OK."

San Mateo County Dispatcher: "It's a huge fire."

SFFD Command: "Well, I'm telling you an off-duty San Francisco fireman said he saw a plane go down."

Lu Canton is an emergency management consultant. He says confusion is common in the early stages of most any incident, but dispatchers and first responders should be accurate.

"First law of emergency management is stress makes you stupid, you don't think as clearly as you do normally," Canton said. "Accurate information is certainly one of the most important things, because that helps you determine where and how much resources you're going to apply to the event."

Gardner defends his command staff.

"The lieutenant was passing along information, the way that it was worded wouldn't have changed the story, but I think that the lieutenant is a good young lieutenant up there, got a lot of experience in radio," he said.

Gardner says communication is the major issue as the department prepares its San Bruno after-action report. San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White declined to be interviewed about this and other issues raised by the dispatch recordings, citing a busy schedule.

Alameda was the first county fire department to provide mutual aid. More than a half hour after the blast, San Francisco told San Mateo they were sending what they call an "airport box" consisting of three engines, two trucks, a battalion chief and a medic unit. But then, Gardner decided to strip away the medical part of the response (three ambulances and a rescue captain). No one told San Mateo County.

Gardner: "Yeah, this is Deputy Chief Gardner; I don't want to send ambulances or the RC on that box."

SFFD Command: "You do not want to send ambulances or an RC on that box."

Gardner: "Right, I just want firefighting equipment."

"We didn't know what the medical needs were at the time, so I pulled those off to keep those resources here," Gardner told the I-Team.

San Mateo emergency officials did not know San Francisco recalled its ambulances until the I-Team told them.

"Those are things that we're going to have to try and work out as we go through the after-action component of this," San Mateo County Fire Mutual Aid Coordinator Doug Fry. "There's all sorts of things that came up in this and we're going to look at all aspects of how we can make it better."

"Well, the concern is if I think I have a certain resource coming to me, I'm not going to request that resource through another system and when it doesn't show up I may be in trouble because I was counting on that resource arriving," Canton said.

Several members of the command staff called into question Gardner's handling of the incident, from the size and speed of the department's response, to the decision to pull back the ambulances.

"We tried to send a couple ambulances down there and Gardner said, 'No,'" a dispatcher said at one point during the incident.

Dan Noyes: "I'm asking about this in the context of lesson learned to apply to the future. Do you think that there was a hiccup here?"

Gardner: "If there was a hiccup it was mine, it was mine for not clearly defining what I wanted to go on the airport box originally."

San Francisco Fire also had two radio issues during the incident. A firefighter had to use his personal cell phone because the fuel truck he was driving out of the Bureau of Equipment on Evans Street did not have a mutual aid radio. Also, the radios that San Francisco gave Bayshore Ambulance did not work during the disaster.

At one point, a battalion chief called into the command center and was apparently talking about his social life in the middle of the emergency.

"I'll see you tomorrow night on the f***ing bang bus, dude," the battalion chief said.

Gardner says he is adding that to his list of issues to investigate for the after-action report.

"We were not only sending people down to San Bruno, but we also had to have all the other units in the city, we still had to protect San Francisco, so if the focus was taken away from that person's work, that's something we'll have to look into," he said.

CAL FIRE and the local fire departments in San Mateo County played a major role in the San Bruno blast. San Francisco had a strike team standing by, but it was not needed.


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