Commentary: City Leaders Value Money Over Saving Lives


By Frank T. Blackburn and Nancy Wuerfel

Our compliments to Thomas K. Pendergast for his continued diligence (June editions of Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon) in once again informing westside residents of the ongoing debate over the expansion of the high-pressure hydrant system to cover our 15 currently unprotected residential neighborhoods.   

His story referenced a recent Board of Supervisors committee meeting on April 28 where staff from the Water Enterprise Department of Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) presented a “planning study” instead of the citywide comprehensive plan required by the Board’s November 2019 unanimously approved resolution 484-19 “Declaring a State of Urgency – Expanding the City’s Emergency Firefighting Water System (EFWS).”  

This resolution was in response to the findings of the 2019 Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) report that, if San Francisco doesn’t adequately address the lack of access to and conveyance of firefighting water before the next great earthquake, much of the western and southern neighborhoods will likely succumb to firestorms of unimaginable proportions. The study was presented at the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing chaired by Supervisor Gordon Mar. It took the SFPUC 2.5 years after the Board’s resolution passed to develop this inadequate proposal for saving the City from catastrophic seismic fires.

Instead of planning to complete protection of the entire City by 2034, as the CGJ recommended in 2019 (then a 15-year timeframe), the SFPUC study says it might be able to get the hydrant expansion done by 2046. This date ignores the U.S. Geological Survey prediction of the next “Big One” to strike the Bay Area before 2043. 

They tell us that one reason it will take so long is that the City has many other pressing issues that require funding, so the projects for post-earthquake firefighting are not a top priority. Apparently, it hasn’t occurred to City leaders that if the City is destroyed by fire, nothing else we accomplish in the interim will matter!   

The homeless problem will then increase to include the displaced taxpayers, businesses and others who occupied the 138,000 wood frame buildings with almost 400,000 residents in the western and southern parts of the City, who were left to burn without the needed unlimited firefighting water for suppression.

It should also be noted that the SFPUC has had responsibility for the high-pressure hydrant system and its water supply since it was transferred from the Fire Department to them in 2010, the same year voters passed the first of three earthquake safety bonds.  

Resilience Officer Brian Strong stated that about $260 million of these Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response (ESER) General Obligation (G.O.) bonds was allotted to the EFWS, which paid for new cisterns and repairs to the existing EFWS, with the lion’s share of ESER bonds financing seismic improvements for eight city departments.

Besides being unable to produce a viable hydrant system expansion plan for more than a decade, and then producing only a “study” stating that they won’t be able to get the job done until 2046 – 36 years after they acquired the system – the SFPUC staff also wants to rely primarily on using drinking water from our municipal reservoirs to fight post-earthquake fires. Why would San Francisco civic leaders choose to use up the local supply of drinking water to fight the expected conflagrations when the City is surrounded by the largest body of water on earth, the Pacific Ocean, a free and unlimited water source? To save money!

Given that the municipal water supply only gets to the City after the Hetch Hetchy transmission mains cross three major Bay Area earthquake faults – the mains run directly above the San Andreas Fault for 25 miles to the treatment plant before entering the City – this plan to use drinking water for firefighting is a breathtakingly dangerous plan. We know that potable water will be in critically short supply for weeks or months following a major earthquake. Where is Plan B when water runs out for drinking, sanitation and hospitals?

Here is what 67 retired San Francisco firefighters, including 31 retired fire chiefs, had to say on the subject in an open letter addressed to Mayor London Breed, the Board of Supervisors and a number of other city officials (Richmond Review, August 2021):  “In the interest of public safety, [we must state that] it is completely irrational to assume that drinking water from municipal reservoirs will be adequate to reliably supply a high-pressure, high-volume hydrant system, like the Auxiliary Water Supply System, for fighting multiple simultaneous fires following a major Bay Area earthquake…. Based on our combined 2,000 years of professional firefighting experience, we must clearly state that the only practical solution for supplying a citywide high-pressure hydrant system … is to use the inexhaustible supply of saltwater that is readily available on three sides of the City.”

Please note how the City has demonstrated a lack of leadership to prepare for these predictable fires and failed to inform the public about earthquake fires dangers and reliance on drinking water: 

1) Mayor Breed remains blissfully silent on the need to extend adequate fire protection to approximately half the City, even though she has knowledge of Fire Department needs having been a fire commissioner in 2010. She has reversed her support for recommendations made by the CGJ to protect all neighborhoods equally. She even took back $2 million from the Fire Department’s budget for hose tender trucks needed to access the new cisterns and never replaced it; 

2) The Public Utilities Commission has not had a hearing on the planning study presented to the Board or on relying on our local drinking water for fighting fires after an earthquake instead of using seawater; 

3) The Fire Commission has not had a hearing on the planning study nor has it been adopted as fulfilling the needs of the Fire Department to suppress earthquake fires; 

4) The Capital Planning Committee has not included “EFWS Expansion” as a unique, stand-alone category of projects to be in the 10-year Capital Expenditure Plan, separate from other projects funded by the ESER G.O. bonds, and with a placeholder estimate for funding future projects; and 

5) City departments have failed to ask the San Franciscans who are the U.S. vice president, the speaker of the House, and the governor to help finance essential EFWS projects.

Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon Editor Michael Durand must be thanked again for publishing articles and commentaries to inform the neighborhoods of the failure of the mayor, the commissions, the City departments, and their leaders to budget and find other state and federal funds to protect our lives and property. The mayor must take the lead by prioritizing earthquake fire protection above the myriad of other politically popular projects. If we had a benefit vs. cost analysis performed to expand EFWS projects citywide, the results would be overwhelmingly in favor of spending money now to save the Bay Area’s crown jewel from being destroyed again by earthquake fires.     

Frank T. Blackburn is a retired SF Fire Department Division Chief, and Nancy Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst.

1 reply »

  1. No they don’t care, just like pandering to Large Developers to build high-rises in and around our neighborhoods which destroys the community!!

    SON-SF ~ Save Our Neighborhoods SF


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