The San Bruno Fire: A Textbook Example of How Mutual Aid Works..

September 16, 2010

A Coordinated, Rapid Response.

The tragic fire in San Bruno last week served as a perfect example of how an incident of this magnitude can quickly overwhelm the emergency resources of a small community such as San Bruno, or any other city on the Peninsula for that matter.   In anticipation large-scale emergencies, the fire departments of every city in San Mateo County work very closely with Cal-Fire and the Office of Emergency Services to develop and hone a rapid mutual aid response to assist the community in need.   You've seen it in action in the past few years, as strike teams from San Mateo County have been mobilized on very short notice to help battle wildfires in Southern California and other parts of the state.  It's an amazing logistical “machine” that is the byproduct of countless hours of planning, and tons of practice.

This past week, it was San Mateo County's hour of need.  And the response was very impressive.

Immediate Assistance.

It became evident right away to first-responders of this incident that a massive mutual aid response would be needed.   Below is an excerpt from an email that Douglas Fry, Fire Chief for the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department, submitted to the San Carlos City Council.  It's an amazing account of how quickly the team was able to mobilize critical resources in a time of dire need (reprinted with permission from the San Carlos City Council.)

‘Last night at 6:15 pm a 30” high pressure gas line exploded in the hills of San Bruno between San Bruno Avenue and Sneath Lane just east of Highway 35.  As you have all seen was a spectacular fire that burned for several hours.  I arrived at about 6:45 pm to assist with the command functions at the scene.  Some 38 houses were destroyed and 7-10 significantly damaged and several at this time are in a varying state of damage.  This was a 6 alarm event plus 7 Strike Teams (5 apparatus each) were sent to the scene – some 40 engines,  5 trucks and over 20 Chief Officers  were at the scene of this fire until approximately 8:00 this morning when we rotated crews.  We were at draw down for apparatus for several hours last night and several agencies including ours up staffed additional equipment to help the system.    At this time there are several injuries 12 at this time 4 of which were firefighters at the scene and they were transported to local hospitals for treatment.  Currently there are 4 fatalities with more expected.  Some 55 residents self transported themselves to area hospitals for treatment – at least one victim was air lifted to the local burn center for treatment – burns over 80% of her body.

We received two strike teams of engines from Alameda County (10 engines and 2 Battalion Chiefs)

We received one task force of equipment from San Francisco Fire (mixture of 4 engines and 1 truck) plus the foam unit from SFO.

We received four strike teams and one hand crew from Cal Fire in addition to  air support as well until dark. (20 engines and 40 personnel for the hand crew)

We received two OES CAL EMA Strike Teams from the Bay area as well (10 more engines and Strike Team Leaders.

Over the years we have sent lots of equipment out of San Mateo County to assist other jurisdictions – this time we were the recipient.  What a great system we have; to move that type of equipment in such a short amount of time.

In addition the department moved Truck 13 to Station 21 in San Mateo and they ran several calls from San Bruno to San Carlos in the move and cover plan.

BC Gaffney and Captain Way responded to Tanforan Shopping center to set up a staging area for the apparatus to respond to.  They were at that location from 8:00 pm last night until noon today.  Haz Mat 13 is at the scene monitoring the air to insure safety for the crews at the scene.  This event will be going on for several days and I anticipate as the weather warms up – call volume will increase.

I will be heading back up to the scene to assist with the Fire Mutual Aid aspect of the event.  As of this writing details are still sketchy, but I will tell you that San Mateo County has a fire response system that is second to none.

Douglas Fry
Fire Chief
Belmont-San Carlos Fire Dept.'

We Are in Good Hands.

Two things that I take from that amazing account of this tragedy.  First, in spite of all of the distractions that come with the budget discussions and talk of dissolution of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department, Chief Fry is extremely dedicated to this organization and is very proud of his whole team and the response that his team provided, as he should be.

Second, it's very comforting to know that this type of response exists in our area.   In the unfortunate event that San Carlos should ever have to deal with a tragedy of this magnitude, it's nice to know that help will be on the way… and fast.

Posted in:

Leave a Comment