Commentary – Thomas W. Doudiet

Sound the fire alarm!

by Thomas W. Doudiet


As a 60-year resident of the Richmond District and a 32-year veteran of the SF Fire

Department (SFFD), I have long been aware that the Outer Richmond and

Sunset districts, with their hundreds of blocks of wood-frame buildings, will be highly

vulnerable to fire immediately following the next great Bay Area earthquake.



This image shows San Francisco in flames after a 7.8-earthquake struck in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906.


For many years while a member of the fire department, and for several years since my

retirement in 2011, I have attempted, with little success, to alert city officials, including

members of the SF Board of Supervisors and staff in the mayor’s office.


My message: There will be almost no emergency water supplies for the SFFD to use in

these neighborhoods for fighting fires after the “big one” hits.


Why is this so?


There are two kinds of fire hydrants in San Francisco, the 9,000 small white low-pressure

hydrants supplied by the same domestic water mains that supply water to every building

in the City and the 1,600 larger hydrants with red, blue or black tops, supplied by the

high-pressure mains of the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS). This system was

installed in the years following the 1906 earthquake and fire, mainly in the areas of the

City that had been built up by 1913. Thus, it doesn’t exist west of 12th Avenue in the

Richmond, west of 19th Avenue in the Sunset or in the city’s southern neighborhoods.


The seismically robust mains of the high-pressure hydrant system were built to

withstand the effects of ground movement during an earthquake, whereas the

domestic water supply that supplies both the low-pressure hydrants, as well as all of the

city’s buildings, are not as seismically resistant.


“I have attempted, with little success, to alert city officials … there will be almost no emergency water supplies for the SFFD… after the big one hits.”


These domestic mains, and many thousands of service connection water pipes leading

from the mains into buildings, could break during a major seismicevent. The result will

be that the SFFD will have little or no water available from the low-pressure hydrants,

just as happened in 1906.


In more than 15 neighborhoods of San Francisco, including the Bayview Heights, Crocker

Amazon, Excelsior, Ingleside, Little Hollywood, Merced Manor, Mission Terrace,

Oceanview, Outer Mission, Outer Richmond, Outer Sunset, Parkside, Portola, Sea Cliff,

Stonestown and Sunnyside, there are no high-pressure hydrants, so how will SFFD

firefighters stop the spread of fire from building to building and, soon thereafter,

from block to block?


The simple answer is that they won’t. Conflagrations (fire storms), as occurred in

1906, will result.


How do we know there will be any fires? In addition to water service pipes going into

every building in San Francisco, there are also natural gas pipes. Just as most of our

domestic water mains are more than 100 years old, so are the gas pipes in many

of these buildings. As we were shown in the Marina District in 1989, when building

structures are disrupted, and sometimes collapse during an earthquake, ruptured

gas lines are an explosive source of building fires.


Assuming that even one building in 1,000 develops an internal gas leak during an

earthquake (there are approximately 56  residential buildings on an average

block in the Richmond and the Sunset), let’s calculate the potential: there are about 225

square blocks in the Outer Richmond and about 525 blocks in the Outer

Sunset – that is a total of 750 blocks times 56 buildings per block equals 42,000 buildings.


If we assume one gas leak per 1,000 buildings, there could be 42 simultaneous

fires, in wood-frame buildings fed by natural gas leaks. Again, there will be no water in

the existing low-pressure hydrants to fight these fires.


By the way, the 75,000 gallon cisterns that the City recently added to the Sunset (and a

few in the Richmond) are good adjuncts to high-pressure hydrants, but they alone

will not stop the fires following a large earthquake. Unless the use of water

from a cistern to fight fires is very close to the fire, it would require two engines

per cistern for firefighting, one at the cistern and one at the scene of the fire.


There are only 44 fire engines in San Francisco and only six engines assigned

to cover both the outer Richmond and Sunset districts, possibly only enough to fight

three fires using water from cisterns on the west side, and leaving perhaps as many as 39

fires burning unchecked.


Individual building fires that are not fought, especially in blocks of wood frame buildings

with no space between them, could very soon lead to entire blocks on fire. The build-up

of heat from many buildings burning simultaneously results in fire spreading from block

to block by radiated heat, and the massive amounts of super-heated air rising creates a

draft similar to a howling windstorm (eye-witness accounts of the fires after

the 1906 earthquake vividly describe this process).


The entire southern and western parts of the city could be destroyed by fire in a single

day following a major earthquake. The point here is that unless the fire department has a

ready source of water in a stable, high-pressure, high-volume hydrant system to use to

fight individual small fires immediately after a large earthquake, entire neighborhoods

will be destroyed.


As difficult as it is to consider, people trapped in collapsed buildings that are in the path

of a conflagration are not likely to be rescued before they, too, are consumed by

the flames.


In 2010 and again in 2014, San Francisco voters approved the so-called Earthquake

Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) Bonds. Literature published in support of the

ballot propositions in the Voter’s Guide by the SF Chamber of Commerce and

SF Democratic Party implied the AWSS extensions of the high-pressure hydrant system

into the outer Richmond and Sunset districts were going to be funded by these and

subsequent bonds.


Following the passage of the 2014 ESER bond measure, however, a strange thing

occurred. In spite of the published reports and recommendations of the engineering

firm the City hired to study fire protection issues, the SF Water Department (an arm of

the SF Public Utilities Commission) clearly signaled that it no longer intended to go

forward with the extension of this hydrant system into our neighborhoods after all.


This change in plans became apparent when they moved to auction off, for scrap metal

prices, millions of dollars worth of materials and parts that the City had stored for the

purpose of repairing and extending the high-pressure hydrant system. The water

department’s actual intent then became clear: despite what voters had been led to

believe, the water department now has absolutely no intention of actually extending

the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer neighborhoods.


In April 2016, SF Supervisor Aaron Peskin, chair of the supervisors’ Government Audit

and Oversight Committee, held a hearing to determine whether the auctioning off of

these parts by the water department made sense, in view of the city’s publication, just

before the 2014 bond issue, of maps showing the proposed extension of the high-

pressure hydrant system into the outer Richmond and Sunset districts and other



Representatives of the water and fire departments were asked to explain to the

supervisors why, if they intended to extend the system into currently unserved

neighborhoods, they would be selling off the necessary parts as scrap metal.


The answer given by both a water department manager and a uniformed member of the

SFFD’s command staff was that they now believed that these hydrants were not needed.

Instead, they said, they had discovered that they could purchase 15 miles of large

diameter hoses that could be dropped from the back of flatbed trucks, as needed,

following a major earthquake. This, they stated, would enable the fire department to

fight the expected fires and save those neighborhoods, without high-pressure hydrants,

from being destroyed by conflagrations.


To say that this bizarre scheme defies common sense is an extreme understatement:

• They had no experience using this type of hose, even in daytime simulations under

optimum conditions;

• They had no plan for where the hose and these trucks would be stored;

• They had no plan for who would drive the trucks (later, it was proposed the

Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) volunteers would do the job);

• They proposed using capital bond money to purchase the hose, despite the illegality of

doing so;

• They had no explanation as to how the trucks would maneuver around earthquake

debris in the streets, possibly in total darkness and without electricity;

• They could not explain how incipient fires could be fought without any water, nor who

would be rescuing people trapped in damaged buildings, while firefighters

were occupied setting up flexible hoses;

• They had no explanation as to how they would avoid having these same huge hoses

overrun by the conflagrations that would have developed from the merging of the many

incipient fires that would be left unchecked during the hours that all this elaborate

process was taking place.


Obviously, the large-diameter hose premise put forth by the water department, and

which the uniformed SFFD command staff member clearly and heartily endorsed,

was an absurdly adolescent exercise in trying to cover their folly in abandoning

the extension of the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer neighborhoods

where it has never been installed.


Fortunately, the flexible hose scheme has been abandoned.


There is no dependable high-pressure and high-volume source of emergency water for

post-earthquake firefighting in the outer neighborhoods, and therefore it is entirely

accurate to say: The SFFD has no viable plan for extinguishing post-earthquake fires in

outlying areas of the City.


As it stands now, 15 neighborhoods are exposed and will very likely be destroyed by fire

following the next big Bay Area earthquake, and, neither the water department nor the

fire department has any coherent plans to mitigate this situation!


If this intolerable level of official negligence on the part of the water an fire departments

is not corrected, you and I and most of our neighbors will very probably lose our homes

and businesses to fires after a big earthquake.


After all has been destroyed, the blame will be squarely on the management of water

and fire department officials. The best that can be said for these “public

servants” is that they are guilty of gross professional incompetence; the worst is that

their refusal to address this issue borders on criminal negligence.


If they will not live up to their professional responsibilities, they must be relieved of

their duties and replaced with competent people who will.


Our district supervisors and the mayor must be put on notice that the residents of the

city’s southern and western districts will no longer tolerate this egregious indifference to

our personal safety and the safety of our homes and businesses. Let them know that we

rightfully expect the extension of the high-pressure hydrant system into the outer

neighborhoods. Our homes, businesses and the safety of our families will someday

depend on it.


Thomas W. Doudiet is a retired assistant deputy chief with the SF Fire Department.



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