A Joint Effort: One responder’s account of the response to the San Bruno explosion


By Harold Schapelhouman

On Thursday, Sept. 9, at 1812 HRS, the San Mateo County Public Safety Communications Center (PSC) received a report that an explosion and subsequent fire had occurred in the Glenview neighborhood area of San Bruno, Calif., a city within San Mateo County, which borders the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Bay, the City of San Francisco and Santa Clara County. This region is often called “the peninsula.”

Firefighters from San Bruno and surrounding cities are battled the blaze that started on a hillside and consumed homes in a residential neighborhood.
(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

The crater left by the explosion measured 59 feet long, 35 feet wide and 16 feet in depth, and revealed a 28' section of pipe that had been blown clear of the hole, landing approximately 85 feet away. Photo courtesy Ryan Zollicoffer, Emergency services coordinator, Menlo Park Fire Protection District

Over the next several hours, the PSC handled a 251 percent increase in call volume, a 139 increase in fire resource dispatches, an 83 percent increase in EMS resource dispatches and staffed positions in the field command post for police and fire, as well as an increase in dispatching staff at the primary dispatch center in Redwood City.

The cause of the event was a natural gas line that crossed under the city and Glenview Drive. It was operating at a reported pressure of more than 386 psi when it failed, creating a huge explosion that registered greater than 1.1 on the Richter scale and rocked the city of 41,000 residents. The crater left by the explosion measured 59 feet long, 35 feet wide and 16 feet in depth, and revealed a 28' section of pipe that had been blown clear of the hole, landing approximately 85 feet away. Pacific Gas and Electric, (PG&E) which owns the pipeline, took almost 2 hours to shut down the manual closure valves before the fire could be fully brought under control.

Joint Powers Pays Off
The consolidated dispatch center, which provides service for a number of law enforcement agencies and all fire agencies in the county, quickly dispatched resources to the incident based upon requests from field units and, eventually, incident command.

More than a decade ago, the county’s 16 fire agencies, which consists of agencies from the city, district, county and the state, began to consolidate their efforts under a common dispatching center, forming a joint powers agreement for first response paramedic services, as well as an automatic-aid agreement, which included a robust expanded-alarm plan with move-and-cover protocols. This agreement also created a seamless network of fire agencies in which the closest engine responds to a call, regardless of jurisdiction. The overall system automatically backfills resources when at least two or three bordering stations are vacant.

The Glenview incident reinforced the benefits of the county’s common dispatch platform, the expanded-alarm plan and the move-and-cover aspects of that plan. The vision and relationships created more than a decade ago have been refined and improved over time and were re-authorized in a formal agreement revision last year. That work paid off during this event.

Deployment in Detail
A total of 35 of the county’s 58 fire engines were deployed as the incident quickly scaled up to a sixth alarm and other units were repositioned under the move-and-cover plan. Although the plan allows for a seventh and eighth alarm, a queue on the alarm plan allows for out-of-area strike teams to be requested under the state’s master mutual-aid agreement, so a decision was made to order two Type 1–5 engine strike teams from Alameda County, directly across the San Francisco Bay, rather than continue to degrade the entire county’s resources.

Within the county, CAL FIRE supported the incident with fixed-wing and rotary air assets that provided dramatic air drops to slow and/or stop the fire’s progress over the densely populated metropolitan area as the sun began to set. In addition, CAL FIRE deployed three strike teams and hand crews for mop-up during the second operational period of the event.

The San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) responded from the adjacent San Francisco International Airport, which is actually located in San Mateo County, with a full task force as well as an Air Crash Unit, which drove into a heavily involved neighborhood and is credited with saving part of that neighborhood by foaming it.

The greatest amount of credit goes to the firefighters from San Bruno and Millbrae, specifically fire stations 51 and 52, one of which is located just around the corner from where the incident occurred.

First responders from these stations and other supporting Fire Agencies had to deal with an overwhelming set of circumstances, which included the initial false reports that a large aircraft had crashed after take-off from the San Francisco International Airport, and the discovery that the municipal water-supply system had been damaged by the explosion.

Fourteen water tenders eventually responded to the incident due to water-supply issues. Long hoselays were also needed to establish some form of firefighting water supply. That said, all firefighting ground forces made valiant progress in slowing or stopping the fire wherever possible. As a result, they saved many homes and assisted residents with injuries and evacuation during the initial phase of this incident.

One week later, we now know that a total of seven people have lost their lives; four were initially found deceased outside of homes while three others were eventually discovered by teams exploring specific sites based upon initial indications from Human Remains Discovery (HRD) dogs and the detailed work of forensic pathologists who carefully combed through all of the burned-out homes and sites. In all, 51 patients were seen at four local hospitals. Some were transported by ambulance while others showed up on their own. Five are serious burn victims and four were firefighters who suffered from heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation while combating the conflagration. Thirty-seven homes were completely destroyed and an additional nine homes sustained various degrees of damage. Fifty vehicles were destroyed, with an additional 15 that were damaged but can be repaired.

Although there are many lessons to be learned, issues that will have to be explored and improvements that will have to be made, the strengths of the California Fire Master Mutual Aid System, San Mateo County Fire Agencies singular dispatch system, expanded alarm plan and move and cover benefits, along with the dedication of all the responders, helped turn the tide of this apocalyptic, unpredictable and unprecedented event.

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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