Review Finds San Francisco’s Main Emergency Services Computer Died during Apartment Fire

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PHILLIP MATIER and ANDREW ROSS
The San Francisco Chronicle

A big-brass review of San Francisco's response to a New Year's Eve apartment blaze that left 48 people homeless turned into a jaw-dropper.

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The big surprise: The Division of Emergency Services' main computer lost its Internet connection in the middle of the crisis, and workers couldn't get the backup system running because no one knew the password.

Word of the meltdown surfaced just the other day, when the Mayor's Disaster Council sat down to review the city's response to the North Beach fire.

Mayor Ed Lee and other city officials at the meeting listened with growing disbelief as an emergency services representative casually mentioned that the computer had crashed as the fire burned.

"Did you switch to the backup system?" asked Board of Supervisors President David Chiu.

"No," said the rep from emergency services.

"Why not?" Chiu asked.

"We couldn't find the password, and the only person who knew it wasn't there," the rep replied.

"How long was the system down?" Chiu asked.

"Two to three hours."

When Chiu asked what the agency had done in the meantime, the emergency services rep held up a notepad and said, "That's what we have pencils and paper for."

The division's chief, Rob Dudgeon, said the rep's explanation was "a bit simplistic." But, yes, he said, the connection failed, and the agency had to bring in a tech to reconnect the computer.

"The Internet makes things easier, but it's not like we can't operate without it," Dudgeon said. "We still had radios and cell phones. And it's not like we are going to have Internet connection if we get hit with the Big One."

Maybe not, but "we were all pretty surprised by the answers," Chiu said.

And he's asking for a full report.

Copyright NM1J3LL1 San Francisco Chronicle
All Rights Reserved
April 20, 2011

Tags: San Francisco, communication, computers, dispatch, leadership

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