firefighting

SFFD: SF Needs Upgraded Firefighting Equipment and Water Supply

By Thomas K. Pendergast

The San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) is calling on city leaders to prioritize spending for more hose tender fire trucks. This particular type of fire truck costs $1 million each, and while orders have been placed for a few of them, according to a 2019 Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) report, that will not be nearly enough. 

The report, titled “Act Now Before It Is Too Late: Aggressively Expand and Enhance Our High-Pressure Emergency Firefighting Water System” (EFWS), calls for the City to purchase a total of 20 hose tender trucks as a stop-gap measure to adequately cover the areas of the City not yet fully prepared to fight fires after a catastrophe. 

Deputy Assistant Chief Tom O’Connor tells 7-year-old Edo Marsullo about the four-way manifold being operated by Capt. Frank Hsieh of Truck 14 and the rest of its crew. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

The CGJ report raised questions about post-earthquake fire protection after the next major earthquake, and whether firefighters will have enough water pressure to fight the resulting conflagrations. If it happens sooner rather than later, neighborhoods in supervisorial districts 1, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 11 could be engulfed in firestorms similar to the ones that destroyed much of the City in 1906. 

The SFFD has four of the trucks in service now, but these older models are limited by the fact that they have no water pumps, so they still require a regular fire truck engine to pump water out of cisterns or lakes. In the event of a major conflagration after an earthquake, this could lead to a shortage of available fire trucks. 

The newer models, however, will come with water pumps, so they don’t require another engine. 

At a demonstration in Golden Gate Park on April 24, Deputy Assistant Chief Tom O’Connor explained that the idea behind the hose tenders is to extend the EFWS out into those neighborhoods that aren’t currently being served.

“Each hose tender can lay out about 4,000 feet of hose, so nearly close to a mile,” O’Connor said. “We can relay water and create an above-ground water main if the other water mains break. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best solution we have until the (EFWS) system does get built out. Right now, in the pipeline we have money for three new ones to add to it, because the grand jury report called for an additional 20.”

The City also expects to receive some help from the State of California to purchase an additional five hose tender trucks. 

“If all of the hydrants break because of liquefaction, and you have multiple water main breaks everywhere, we can bring the hose tender out, find a supply of water and then run it nearly a mile towards where the fire is, above ground, feeding another supply of water,” O’Connor said.

“We were budgeted for five. It got cut down to three,” he said. “Until we build (the EFWS) out with the hard structure and we’re just waiting for those to be approved and then purchased. So we’ll get three new ones and that will bring us up to seven, and we’re going to distribute those in areas that need it the most.”

District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan is more hopeful about getting additional funding than she was just a few months ago. 

“We have some good news; $600 million of federal stimulus funding is coming,” Chan said. “Our budget was originally really gloom and doom about six months ago. Now we’re in a much better place and I think we should fully fund our first responders – in this case, the fire department. 

“This is also a critical juncture, the way we spend our budget, because what we worry about is when the federal stimulus funding is gone and no longer exists two fiscal years down the road. 

Chan emphasized that time is of the essence.

“The way we spend now will help us build a solid foundation for economic recovery in 2024. And we’ve got to keep people safe first. I think that’s our first priority: keeping people safe and healthy.”

Chan praised voters for passing a bond measure last year which allocates more than $153 million to expand the EFWS pipeline system. 

“We know that in an emergency every second matters,” she said. “We need to do better, and I think that it’s great that the voters see that and approved Prop. B in March, 2020 giving us the funding to build our capacity. Now we just need to make sure that we stay on track. I think our fire department needs a lot more resources. We need to increase capacity.”

The population of San Francisco is expected to grow, including on the west side.

“If we’re talking about (population) density on the west side – and we’re talking about growing the west side responsibly and with balance – we’ve got to have infrastructure,” Chan said. “That’s not just about transit, but also about how we can respond to emergencies,” Chan said. “I think the hose tender is part of it. Right now we need it immediately.”

The 1906 earthquake killed more than 3,000 people, many incinerated while trapped in rubble due to hundreds of broken water mains and thousands of broken service connections. The system failures eliminated the water pressure needed to fight the ensuing firestorm. In the years immediately following that devastation, the City built a separate high-pressure water system composed of pipelines and seawater pumps designed to withstand a massive earthquake and deliver enough water pressure to fight large fires. 

At the time, most of the City’s residents lived on the east side, so the original system was only built out, with some later expansions, as far west as 12th Avenue in the Richmond District and eventually 19th Avenue in the Sunset District. In later decades, however, as the City expanded, the EFWS did not keep pace, leaving more than a dozen neighborhoods in the western and southern areas vulnerable to another devastating firestorm.   

Also not included in the 2020 bond is money to expand the high-pressure pipelines into the southernmost areas of the City, leaving the south end of districts 7, 8, 9 and 11 far more vulnerable to fire than anywhere else in San Francisco. 

The CGJ report says that six of San Francisco’s districts have fewer than 10 miles each of EFWS water mains. Districts 8 and 9 each have nine miles of them, District 7 has seven miles and District 11 has only one. As for the high-pressure hydrants needed to handle that water, districts 8 and 9 each have 110 and District 7 has 79. 

These areas do have water cisterns, however, with District 8 having 12 cisterns, District 9 with 21 cisterns and District 7 with 12 cisterns. District 4 also has 12 cisterns, while District 1 has 17. The problem with cisterns, however, is that they would run out of water in less than an hour and cannot be refilled quickly. 

The report says the City has a total of 229 cisterns. 

Hose tender trucks equipped with water pumps could also draw water from Lake Merced and other sources, if necessary. 

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