Letters to the Editor

Letter to the Editor – Urgent Action Required to Save Our Neighborhoods

September 11, 2019


Frank T. Blackburn, Assistant Chief, SFFD, Retired, 35 years service

Thomas W. Doudiet, Assistant Deputy Chief, SFFD, Retired, 32 years service


To: Members of the San Francisco Fire Commission;

Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department;

Members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors;

Mayor London Breed;

Hon. Garrett L. Wong, Presiding Judge of the Superior Court, Overseeing Civil Grand Jury

The report of the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury (CGJ), July 2019, “Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System,”must be given the prompt attention of the various City agencies named as respondents.  That the issue of the citywide expansion of the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) has been unresolved for many decades is an egregious example of dereliction of duty by multiple agencies of the City and County of San Francisco.  Continual postponement of this expansion will result in the destruction by fire of at least half of the City following the next great Bay Area earthquake.  The two most essential conclusions of the report are:  the AWSS must be expanded to all San Francisco neighborhoods; and time is of the essence.

Given the geology of Northern California, the history of San Francisco and a knowledge of urban conflagrations, it will be clearly understood that, in the absence of adequate post-earthquake emergency water supplies, the 138,000 wood-frame buildings and the 390,000 residents that occupy the fifteen neighborhoods not protected by the AWSS will fall victim to catastrophic loss, including the loss of human life on an unimaginable scale.  Our most vulnerable San Francisco residents, children, the elderly and the physically disadvantaged, are those who are most likely to die, as firestorms sweep through partially collapsed buildings before rescues can be made.  Although the tax rates are equal throughout the City, fire protection is not.

In the absence of immediate, deliberate and rational action to rectify this situation, those public officials who have now been informed by the Civil Grand Jury report will be held responsible by history, and by the citizens of San Francisco, when this disaster strikes.  Fortunately, the remedies which must be brought to bear on this problem are well-known and can be readily understood.

1- The seismically robust AWSS must be extended into all City neighborhoods.

2- The pumping capacity of the AWSS must be approximately doubledfrom its present 88,000 gallons per minute (currently supplied by the two existing salt water pump stations and three fireboats).  The addition of three new non-potable water pump stations (30,000 gallons per minute each – one at the north end of Ocean Beach, one at Lake Merced, and one in Hunters Point), will result in virtually inexhaustible and geographically diverse sources of water supply in all four quadrants of the City, and each can be used to augment the supply to the other three quadrants, as needed. Thus, there will be adequate water for firefighting citywide.

3- The Portable Water Supply System (PWSS), which saved the Marina District from destruction in 1989, must be expanded from its present derelict conditionin order to be able to augment the expanded AWSS, but the new units must be carefully designed to meet actual conditions of post-earthquake firefighting, in consultation with veterans of the 1989 Marina fire, so that the lessons learned from the last earthquake will be applied to best advantage in the design and use of the new units.

4- The premise that the City can use its municipal drinking water to supply the expanded citywide AWSS, in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood piecemeal fashion, must be abandoned. This concept is entirely impractical from the standpoint of water volume, and it ignores the requirements of the State Water Code (section 73503) and the City’s legal obligation, under disaster conditions, to share the water stored in our terminal reservoirs with wholesale water customers on the Peninsula (neighboring cities that will also have conflagrations to fight).  Further, this severely flawed concept relies on the speculation that the 167-mile long Hetch Hetchy water system, that crosses three major Bay Area earthquake faults and then parallels the San Andreas Fault for 25 miles, will remain completely functional following a M7.9 earthquake, even though this, the model currently being used by the SFPUC, would release 31 times more energy than the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake!

5- The contrast between a limited supply of municipal drinking water and the inexhaustible supply of non-potable water that surrounds the City must be clearly understood in terms of volume, reliability and the SFFD’s ability to control post-earthquake fires.  The post-earthquake condition of the 167-mile long Hetch Hetchy transmission mains is only speculation, as this will depend on the (unknowable) location and intensity of the earthquake.  In contrast, the supply of saltwater in the Pacific Ocean and the Bay, and the 1.2 billion gallons of non-potable water in Lake Merced, is literally adjacent to the currently unprotected neighborhoods into which the AWSS must now be expanded. The existing AWSS has been using saltwater as its primary (inexhaustible) source of supply since 1913 precisely because the engineers who were eye-witnesses to the 1906 disaster understood the necessity of having an unlimited source of water when a conflagration must be fought. So, which should we now choose – an inexhaustible supply of non-potable water that is readily available or our supply of drinking water that has to flow 167 miles and will be in critically short supply for human needs following a major earthquake? Here, our use of common sense, rather than speculation, will be critical to the City’s survival.

6- The following subject matter experts have the requisite knowledge to advise all City agencies and should be consulted in designing the expansion of the AWSS and PWSS:

-Dr. Charles Scawthorn, Professor of Engineering, University of California, Berkeley;

-Dr. Thomas D. O’Rourke, Professor of Engineering, Cornell University;

-Retired Chief Donald Parker, Former Chair, California Seismic Safety Commission;

-Michael Smith, Licensed Civil Engineer, S. F. Department of Public Works;

-William Gunn, Former SFFD – AWSS Superintendent, Retired;

-Battalion Chief Paul Crawford, SFFD, Licensed Civil Engineer.


Frank T. Blackburn, SFFD, Retired                               Thomas W. Doudiet, SFFD, Retired













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