Full Disclosure & the Fog of War: Fallout from the San Bruno explosion

TECHNICAL RESCUE

By Harold Schapelhouman

The gas main explosion in the city of San Bruno rocked the small California community just south of San Francisco on Sept. 9. The official cause of the blast has yet to be determined by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB), but this event may be yet another example of the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. Of concern are the age and overall condition of a system that was built more than 50 years ago.

The country is currently dealing with collapsing bridges, deteriorating roads, reduced budgets and many needed improvements that seem to get pushed down the road for someone else to address in the hope that our economy will improve.

The PG&E Dilemma
The underground natural gas pipeline that failed was operating at a reported 386-plus lbs. per square inch when it ruptured. The resulting fireball killed eight people, destroyed 37 homes and more than 50 vehicles, and created significant concerns about distribution systems lying just below the ground that people don’t usually think about. The pipeline was part of a larger feeder system that runs through the region and supplies natural gas to the San Francisco Peninsula and the city and county of San Francisco.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the owner of the pipeline, is now under significant pressure and scrutiny because of the event. The utility provider has been asked to provide the public and first responders with information about the location of its underground infrastructure, but therein lies part of the dilemma, as the company attempts to balance the public’s right to know with legitimate homeland security concerns.


The gas main explosion in the city of San Bruno rocked the small California community just south of San Francisco on Sept. 9. (AP Photo/Michael Sah)

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the owner of the pipeline, is now under significant pressure and scrutiny because of the event. The utility provider has been asked to provide the public and first responders with information about the location of its underground infrastructure, but therein lies part of the dilemma, as the company attempts to balance the public’s right to know with legitimate homeland security concerns. AP Photo/Noah Berger)

By providing a hypersensitive public with more information about where its gas lines are located, will PG&E be opening the door to vandals and/or terrorists who, if armed with more information, could create a system disruption or, even worse, another San Bruno-style event?

The issue as it applies to first responders isn’t as problematic, but what is troubling is that not all first responders are asking for the same things from PG&E.

Does Full Disclosure Equal Danger?
Part of what created this situation is PG&E’s public disclosure of a list of the top 100 major projectsin the region, which was first released to the media. The company then set about meeting with individual governmental representatives from each of the affected jurisdictions, which in some cases raised even more questions and concerns.

By disclosing major project information, PG&E, which had previously cited security concerns, opened themselves up to a whole new list of issues from dozens of concerned public officials and interest groups, most of whom knew little or nothing about what was necessary with regard to mitigation or incident response, but wanted to be able to respond to the public’s increased concerns and sensitivity about the safety of underground utilities.

Legitimately, the public does have the right to know what’s going on in their neighborhood, but does obtaining certain information also place them collectively in jeopardy? What should be public information and what should not? What should first responders be aware of and why? Who needs to be involved and who doesn’t?

Those are all tough questions in the face of a very emotional and troubling catastrophic event. Until the NTSB report is released, the fear of the unknown will continue to be a significant regional issue that challenges the utility company, responders, public officials and the nerves of an anxious public that’s now fearful of what may lie just below their feet.

The Fog of War Returns
One of the cities that we provide fire protection to is on the top 100 list, so we were invited to a meeting with the utility and the city staff to discuss the list. PG&E has done a good job of following up on presenting promised maps that show the locations of underground distribution lines, but I have to admit that the premise behind the top 100 list made little sense to me as truly usable information.

San Bruno’s event occurred without warning. No construction work was going on at the time and none had been done in the area for quite some time. Early reports of an aircraft crash incident based upon the site’s close proximity to San Francisco International Airport seemed not only credible but probable. But as first responders arrived, no wreckage was found and the fire continued to burn with an unstoppable intensity that spoke to something else: a gas fire.

In every catastrophic or disastrous event, accurate, relevant, timely information and clear communications are critical to proper decision-making by first responders. But a phenomenon known as the “fog of war,” which involves inaccurate information, improper assumptions and communications, in the initial phases of an event always disrupts the flow and overall success of operations.

Making proper decisions during a developing and dynamic situation can be difficult and elusive based upon the amount of situational awareness and factual information responders have in the developing or initial phases of a crisis. Therein lies one of the real questions about how this situation could have been handled: If one of the speculated causes of the incident had stemmed from the knowledge that a major gas line ran through that area, would it have precluded the assumption that it had to be an aircraft, and if so, would that have a made a difference in the response or ultimate outcome of the event?

The responders and media quickly picked up on the dispatch reports of a downed aircraft. Unfortunately, this scenario of obtaining flawed reports, bad information and limited communications has happened many times before in this country. During the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing, first responders initially believed that they were responding to a gas line explosion. In New Orleans, people initially believed that the city had somehow survived Hurricane Katrina as the winds subsided. And during 9/11, an orbiting police helicopter flew over New York City and communicated that personnel should evacuate due to a threat of imminent collapse while firefighters on a separate communications system continued to climb the stairs inside the Twin Towers!

One hour and 46 minutes went by before PG&E was able to shut off the flow of gas in San Bruno. So at what point did they know they had a problem? How long did it take for them to respond? When did they first communicate with first responders to clarify and substantiate that the incident was a major gas line explosion and not an aircraft crash? All of those answers are forthcoming, but what we can address today is the importance of each agency to improve its situational awareness in their community when it comes to locations of underground utilities for gas, electric, fuel, water, communications and sewer lines.

As I sat in the meeting with PG&E and city staff members, my dispatch pager buzzed notifying me that we had a fire hydrant out of service. Our system notifies all supervisors on a daily basis of road closures or delays and important items like hydrants out of service so that our situational awareness and ability to respond effectively are not compromised.

A Final Note
Responders not only need to know where important and critical utilities are located, they also need to know if significant work or disruption to those systems is occurring so they can maintain a higher level of situational awareness and accuracy related to their response.

Depending upon the risk associated with the threat, we can also pre-plan our response so that our efforts and ability to effectively respond in the face of a catastrophic event or any incident are more focused.

Harold Schapelhouman is a 29-year veteran firefighter with the Menlo Park (Calif.) Fire Protection District. At the start of 2007, he became the first internally selected fire chief in 21 years for his organization. Previously, he was the division chief in charge of special operations, which includes all district specialized preparedness efforts, the local and state water rescue program, and the local, state and National Urban Search and Rescue Program (USAR).

Schapelhouman was the task force leader in charge of California Task Force 3, one of the eight California USAR teams and one of the 28 federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS/FEMA) teams.



Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Tags: Harold Schapelhouman, PG&E, San Bruno, gas main explosion

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Comment by Kathy Williams on December 8, 2010 at 9:40pm
Very well written article, and much food for thought. Especially your paragraph near the end, which starts One hour and 46 minutes went by before PG&E ...... That seems like an awfully long time (one hour and 46 minutes) to take to turn the gas off.
Comment by Mick Mayers on December 2, 2010 at 6:07pm
Excellent article.

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