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High pressure: Responding to the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion

The one phrase that kept running through Chief Ron Lavezzo's mind was "your value is based on observable behavior and measurable results"

By Ron Lavezzo, Division Chief
Millbrae/San Bruno Fire Department

When people begin to define the term "High Pressure" there are a number of descriptive phrases that pop up. "Putting the screws to you," "a monkey on your back", "all eyes are on you" and "stuck between a rock and a hard place" are just a few. On September 9 at 1811, a 30" natural gas transmission main ruptured in San Bruno, California. The gas main was under High Pressure.

The response to the alarm was immediate and far reaching. The first engine came from a firehouse only two blocks away. Fire companies from five counties responded. Eight aircraft, four water tenders, one airport foam rig and a life flight helicopter were employed in the fight. An Automatic Aid System, in place in San Mateo County, was flexed and tested against High Pressure. The results: it works.

I responded to an "explosion" in a residential neighborhood. During my response time I received information with which began the formation of a plan to mitigate an emergency that had still largely unknown details.

Some details were obvious. An 800 foot column of smoke, a 100 foot fire ball, multiple number of structures on fire, limited access to parts of the neighborhood, evacuation of residents and injured and burned patients. High Pressure.

Add some unconfirmed information stating that the fire could be caused by a large airplane that crashed in the neighborhood. Higher Pressure. Add some additional confirmed information given by the first-in engine captains that all fire hydrants within 1500 feet of the explosion were dry due to a ruptured water main. Extremely High Pressure.

The one phrase that kept running through my mind was "your value is based on observable behavior and measurable results." The observable behavior had to involve controlling my own action, resources and the emergency situation.

To communicate accurately the area was branched off, alarms were then increased to eight and the cause of the fireball was getting clearer. Water shuttles and tenders arrived to supply engines with water while more permanent water supplies were obtained from adjacent distribution grids.

An Operation Section was formed. Retardant was dropped by aircraft in a Wildland interface that was next to the explosion site. P.G.&E. representatives gave us timelines for the cutoff of the natural gas. Helicopters began dropping water from a nearby reservoir in the neighborhoods to assist firefighters.

A Multi-Casualty Medical Group was established for the injured. The gas pressure dropped as the measurable results began increasing.

This simplistic explanation of the strategies and tactics employed on the tragic emergency in San Bruno cannot portray the actual event, but merely give a small insight into the High Pressure associated with it.

Fireground discipline and management used by engine companies and command staff was a critical factor in minimizing the loss of lives and property in San Bruno. The experience gained from dealing with a High Pressure event places future emergencies in a different perspective.

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