Commentary – A Disaster Waiting to Happen

A Disaster Waiting to Happen

By Frank T. Blackburn and Thomas W. Doudiet

The report of the Civil Grand Jury (July, 2019), “Act Now Before It Is Too Late:  Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System,” required the prompt attention of the various City agencies named as respondents.  These include the mayor, fire commissioners,  fire chief and the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).  

That the issue of the citywide expansion of the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS) of high-pressure, high volume hydrants has been unresolved for many decades is an egregious example of dereliction of duty by multiple agencies of the City. 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:  (1) the AWSS must be expanded to protect all San Francisco neighborhoods; and (2) time is of the essence.  

Fire shot from Doudiet

The above painting by William Coulter depicts the burning of San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake. A full-sized photographic reproduction of the painting (5 feet by 10 feet) hangs in the lobby of SFFD Headquarters at Second and Townsend streets. Courtesy photo.

In their answer to the Grand Jury’s finding that the AWSS expansion must be accomplished as soon as possible (since we don’t know when the “big one” will strike, but we do know that in 15 San Francisco neighborhoods there will be no water for the SF Fire Department [SFFD] to use to fight the multiple fire that experts tell us are sure to merge into conflagrations) responding City agencies state the following:  

“As the City considers what is essential to protect San Francisco, it is important to acknowledge our multiple, complex resilience challenges. These challenges are documented in the Resilient SF strategy (2016) and underlie the strategic efforts of our capital investments as represented in the 10-Year Capital Plan (last updated in 2019). These challenges are: earthquakes, sea level rise/climate change, aging infrastructure, unaffordability and social inequity. All of these challenges represent meaningful threats to San Franciscans, their property and their ability to make a life in the city. In making decisions about priority investments, San Francisco must keep an eye on all of these challenges, identify the areas of greatest need across them, and make progress on all fronts simultaneously.”  

Translation:  All these issues are of vital importance to the quality of life in San Francisco and all must be prioritized when we consider how to spend our public funds. Since we don’t view the AWSS expansion into the currently unprotected neighborhoods as being more important or more urgent than these other civic concerns, the AWSS has to fall in line and wait for occasional funding through the Capital Bond process.  Of course, if half the City burns down before we get the AWSS expansion completed (which might be done somewhere around mid-century), then everything else we will have accomplished between now and the time of the earthquake will be of no value, but we can’t allow the issue of providing equal fire protection to all neighborhoods to interfere with resolving all these other important issues.

Therefore, the responsible city agencies will ignore the Grand Jury’s call to rapidly implement a citywide AWSS expansion. Instead, serial hybrid, piecemeal, neighborhood-by-neighborhood mini-expansions will take place using Capital Bond funds as follows: 2020, 2027, 2033 and so on out to 2049.  So much for the Grand Jury’s call for a complete build-out into all currently unprotected neighborhoods by 2034.  

Oh, and it gets worse – the SFPUC will be using our Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) Bond funds to build reinforced municipal water mains, not dedicated high-pressure, high-volume AWSS mains using the unlimited supply of seawater that surrounds the City on three sides and which the existing AWSS has used quite successfully since 1913.

The agenda of the SFPUC is not to provide a system using an inexhaustible supply of seawater, which is the only certain means by which the SFFD will be able to control post-earthquake fires, but rather to use Earthquake Bond money to slowly replace their antiquated and fragile drinking water mains. That’s why the citywide expansion of the AWSS can’t be completed before mid-century; the SFPUC needs to hijack the earthquake bond money slowly and relegate the AWSS expansion to piecemeal occasional funding, instead of one large dedicated funding source for a comprehensive expansion.  

Of course, if the “big one” hits before their piecemeal expansion using drinking water is complete, none of the other civic improvements we may have made in the interim will matter; we will lose half of the City’s tax base and create 400,000 new homeless people within three or four days after the earthquake as firestorms raze our wood-frame neighborhoods.

It is ironic that a single bond issue, passed by the voters in 1907, to design and build the original AWSS, led to the installation of Twin Peaks Reservoir, 77 miles of high-pressure pipelines, two saltwater pump stations and 887 hydrants. The entire project was designed, constructed and put in service in five years and it is still in service 106 years later. 

In contrast, the SFPUC has had control of the AWSS for more than nine years and no comprehensive expansion plan for the 15 unprotected neighborhoods has yet materialized. In fact, even though the Grand Jury has called for such a plan to be completed within a year, the SFPUC now has been given an additional year by the Board of Supervisors to “study the matter.” If engineers over 100 years ago, armed with only pencils, paper and slide rules, could accomplish what they did in five years, how is it that our modern engineers can’t at least copy what was done by 1913 and expand it into the outlying neighborhoods?

The simple answer is that providing a robust, dependable and inexhaustibly sourced high-pressure hydrant system made perfect sense to the engineers who had been eyewitnesses to the destruction of the City by fire in 1906. Their highest priority was to prevent this from ever happening again and they had the capacity to apply what used to be known as common sense. The highest priority of the SFPUC seems to be using Earthquake Bond money to replace their decrepit drinking water mains and telling the public that their substandard approach to expanding the AWSS will suffice when multiple simultaneous fires break out in the western and southern neighborhoods, assuming, of course that the next big earthquake will wait for them to finish their piecemeal projects sometime around 2049.  

Hopefully at some future time someone will be able to explain how San Francisco, “the City that knows how,” can get the $1.7 billion funding to enable the construction of a subway tunnel from South of Market to Chinatown, or can undertake what is said will be a $5 billion reconstruction of the seawall, but can’t figure out how to fund perhaps a $1 billion citywide expansion of the original AWSS, that would actually enable the SFFD to keep half the City from burning down following the next big earthquake and save (conservatively) $140 billion worth of residential housing that exists in the 15 currently unprotected neighborhoods.  Apparently, our city agencies’ concern with “social inequity” doesn’t extend to the fact that we taxpayers in the western and southern neighborhoods pay the same tax rate as those in AWSS-covered neighborhoods, but we don’t have the same level of fire protection!

If just one percent of the City’s budget could be allocated to the comprehensive expansion of the AWSS each year for the next 10 years (a total of $1.2 billion), the urgent recommendations of the Civil Grand Jury could be achieved and the entire City would be protected using the inexhaustible supply of seawater that surrounds us (and is virtually at the doorstep of those neighborhoods that currently lack protection).

Moreover, if we had engineers of the caliber of those that existed in San Francisco 100 years ago, who understood how post-earthquake fires will literally destroy, in a matter of a few days, a city largely constructed of wood, we could avoid having to learn the history of 1906 all over again, which we surely will if we allow the above-named City agencies to ignore the recent findings of the Civil Grand Jury. 

Frank T. Blackburn is a retired assistant chief and Thomas W. Doudiet is a retired assistant deputy chief with the San Francisco Fire Department.

Categories: firefighting

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