City Reps Playing with Fire
by Tom Doudiet
This is a response to the letter from the department heads of the SF Fire
Department (SFFD), SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and SF Department of Public
Works (DPW), published in the December issue of the Richmond Review and
Sunset Beacon newspapers.
The collaborative letter in response to the article on the lack of emergency water
supplies for post-earthquake firefighting in the Outer Richmond, Outer Sunset,
Sea Cliff and 12 other San Francisco neighborhoods (November, 2017 edition),
was factually correct in its recounting of the projects undertaken by the SFPUC
since the passage of the 2010 and 2014 Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response
Bonds, but it conveniently avoids many crucial questions.
The most telling statement from that letter was: “The San Francisco Public Utilities
Commission owns the city’s fire suppression system, commonly referred to as the
Auxiliary Water Supply System, (AWSS). This underground system is made up of more
than 135 miles of high-pressure pipelines and hydrants that are vital for protection
against the loss of life, homes and businesses during multiple-alarm fires.”
If I were an attorney, instead of a career firefighter, I would simply reply,
”Your honor, I rest my case!”
Unfortunately, given the SFPUC’s recent track record of ineptitude in addressing
the issue of how to provide outlying neighborhoods the water supplies that
will be absolutely critical when the next major Bay Area earthquake strikes, further
clarification is required.
Since this high pressure hydrant system is “vital” to the protection of lives and property
when large fires threaten, then why has the SFPUC, with the ongoing tacit approval of
the fire chief, made every conceivable attempt to avoid extending this hydrant system
into the outer neighborhoods of San Francisco?
When, following the passage of the 2010 Earthquake Safety and Emergency
Response (ESER) Bond, the SFPUC’s hired engineering consultants, AECOM,
first endorsed a full extension of the seismically stable high pressure water mains and
hydrants into the outlying neighborhoods as the best of several alternative plans that
were developed, it gave the public every indication that this protection would finally be
afforded to our homes and businesses.
A few years later, however, as work progressed on the AWSS’ “core facilities”
(mainly the Twin Peaks Reservoir and two existing salt water pump stations) and
after the voters passed a second ESER bond in 2014, the SFPUC changed its tune:
suddenly, inexplicably, the actual extension of the high pressure hydrants wasn’t viewed
as being needed in our neighborhoods after all!
First, the SFPUC put forth a ridiculous scheme which was presented to a subcommittee of
the SF Board of Supervisors by the SF Water Department, and endorsed by the SFFD,
whereby post-earthquake fires in the outlying neighborhoods could supposedly be
mitigated by (in the first hour after the earthquake, mind you) dropping some 15 miles of
12-inch diameter hose from the backs of flat bed trucks to supply the water that would
be needed to fight fires. Then, when it was inconveniently pointed out by SF Supervisor
Aaron Peskin that the use of capital bond money to purchase such hoses was against
the law and that the logistics of the plan were impractical to the point of absurdity,
the bizarre plan was unceremoniously dropped from the SFPUC’s agenda.
Next came the SFPUC’s “potable co-benefit” pipeline scheme, including a labyrinth of
pipes in the Sunset and a 12-block-long water main along Cabrillo Street in the
Richmond, all of which could supposedly be converted from low pressure to high
pressure immediately following a big earthquake by shutting off innumerable
automated valves to isolate the main from low pressure branch pipes.
This would theoretically suffice to protect the Outer Richmond and Sea Cliff from post-
earthquake fires, even though, in reality, it would leave major parts of the Richmond and
all of Sea Cliff beyond the reach of water of sufficient volume and pressure to fight fires.
All of the hose carried by all of the fire engines stationed in the Outer Richmond will not
reach from Cabrillo Street to Lake Street. Figuring this out requires fourth grade
Further, this “potable AWSS” scheme would preclude the use of salt water (of
which we have an unlimited supply readily available from the ocean and the bay,
and which the existing high pressure hydrant system is equipped to use). They
would instead use up the city’s drinking water supply, which is likely to be in critically
short supply following a major disaster.
But, all practical considerations aside, isn’t this a clever way to divert some of the
Earthquake Safety and Emergency Bond money into building municipal “co-benefit”
water mains instead of using Water Department revenues for funding this?
Despite the glaring inadequacies of the “potable co-benefit” pipeline scheme, the
department heads of the SFPUC, fire department and department of public works
tell us that they have everything under control and all we have to do is sit back
and trust them and the individual post-earthquake fires will, somehow magically,
be extinguished before fire storms (conflagrations) form and destroy our
homes and businesses.
By way of further obfuscation, their letter goes on to boast of the completion, since 2010,
of 15 new cisterns in the Outer Richmond and Outer Sunset. What they fail to
acknowledge about the cisterns is that they will be practically useless in terms of post-
earthquake firefighting because each cistern requires the use of two fire engines in order
to pump water out of the cistern and boost pressure at the actual location of each fire.
Given that there are only three engines in the Outer Sunset and three in the Outer
Richmond, no matter how many cisterns are constructed, the total number of post-
earthquake fires that can be reliably fought using cisterns in the two districts is three
(six engines divided by two engines per cistern equals three fires). Again, fourth
grade mathematics seems to elude our trusty guardians of public safety!
Thus, the number of available fire engines, rather than the number of cisterns,
is the limiting factor in fighting fires after a disaster, which the SFPUC and the fire
chief would like you to please overlook and feel adequately protected. Think of
the pictures of the Santa Rosa neighborhoods devastated by the recent conflagrations.
To further allay the concerns of the residents of some 15 San Francisco neighborhoods,
the heads of the SFPUC, fire department and DPW state:
“Together, we are moving forward in a coordinated, thoughtful and thorough effort
to improve and expand the City’s fire suppression water system. Our collaborative
approach utilizes all of the city’s expertise in fire suppression and water
Between 1908 and 1913, the vast majority of the city’s high pressure hydrant
system that currently exists was installed. This was accomplished by highly competent
engineers of that era using sophisticated technology, like slide rules, pencils
and paper. More than 100 years ago, using crude construction equipment, they
were able to install the bulk of 135 miles of pipeline, more than 1,000 high pressure
hydrants, the 10.5 million gallon Twin Peaks Reservoir, and two salt water pump stations
(all of which are still giving reliable service), and they did this within five years.
In contrast, it’s now been more than seven years since the first ESER bond was passed,
and the SFPUC hasn’t installed a single mile of high pressure pipeline in the city’s outer
neighborhoods, and apparently has no immediate plans to do so.
The current fire chief has held her position for 14 years, and no significant
improvements in the area of post-earthquake firefighting capability have been
Do they assume that we are so gullible that their self-congratulatory letter that
appeared in the December Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers will lull us
into a false sense of security?
Going forward, all evidence points to more of what we’ve seen during the several years
since the passage of the 2014 bond: the SFPUC careening back and forth from one
implausible “band aid” scheme to another while avoiding an actual expansion of the
amazingly efficient high-pressure hydrant system.
At what point will our representatives on the Board of Supervisors start taking seriously
the issue of post-earthquake firefighting in our neighborhoods and require the heads of
SFPUC and the SFFD to provide what is needed for the public’s safety?
In their own words this is: “The underground system … of high pressure pipelines and
hydrants that are vital for protection against the loss of life, homes and businesses
during multiple-alarm fires.”
Now, I rest my case.
Thomas W. Doudiet is a retired assistant deputy chief with the SF Fire Department.