An earthquake hits San Francisco in the wee hours of the morning. Buildings have crumbled, and roads and bridges have buckled and cracked. On one particular block, a house is leaned over, and water is gushing from a manhole that has become dislodged down the street from a catch basin that is not draining properly. The street is quickly flooding.
In the event of an emergency scenario like this, reminiscent of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, employees at the SFPUC must be ready to serve on the frontlines especially since this kind of seismic disaster could also include damage to the City’s combined sewer system network of over 1,000 miles of pipes, 700-plus miles of sewer laterals, and 25,000 catch basins.
Emergency preparedness planning that protects public safety and public health is at the heart of the SFPUC’s core mission, and groups in the Wastewater Enterprise’s Collection System Division (CSD) are making disaster response their top priority for National Safety Month.
CSD prepared for these kinds of emergency scenarios by holding their first-ever Damage Assessment Drill on Thursday, June 20 at Griffith Yard. Planning and command staff deployed task forces to several areas just outside of Griffith Yard in order to give employees from across the division firsthand experience of what their expected duties may be in the event of an emergency.
“I’d say that the importance of the drill is twofold: first, we really just wanted to have everyone familiar with the purpose of damage assessments and comfortable with the plan and second, we wanted to solicit input from CSD staff who are our system experts,” said Marsha Van Loan, an assistant engineer for the Collection System Division who coordinated the drill. “Drills are more engaging, and it seeps into everyone’s brain a little more when you get to act or reenact a drill instead of just reading about it in a PowerPoint or a book.”
The day started out with a presentation from Van Loan that included an overview of CSD’s Damage Assessment Plan, task force duties, and radio communication training. The group then split into two-person task force units where they were deployed to assigned locations to conduct on-site training and practice a radio report-in of a mock damage assessment.
Sewers were collapsed, vents were backed up, houses and buildings were falling, and streets were flooded. CSD office personnel with a range of field experience were paired with seasoned field team members, all of whom were from the Storm Watch strike teams charged with inspecting and clearing City catch basins before and during storm events.
Back at Griffith Yard where the conference room served as a makeshift central command unit, Van Loan and her team worked together with Audie R. Ilejay, a CSD supervising inspector, who served as the damage assessment dispatch.
“We assign them a certain location in the city, they report on the area, then they have to open their ‘top secret’ folder,” said Ilejay. “They report on the scenario they have in their folder like, ‘Oh, there’s a cracked street, or there’s a blocked sewer main,’ then they get a chance to report that to me because I’m the dispatcher and then I report to our analyst group and they will look at the data that was reported before forwarding it to the proper responding agency.”
Ilejay said that teams are responsible for not only protecting SFPUC investments, but also must make sure the City’s combined sewer system is running efficiently in order to protect public health and safety.
“You don’t want the public to be exposed to sewer, so we have to make sure that everything is running well, that when people flush their toilets everything will go down directly to the wastewater treatment plant,” said Ilejay.
In addition to providing training and soliciting feedback from experts in the field, Thursday’s drill garnered excitement for future drills that might become annual events. During the event’s debriefing session, participants discussed lessons learned and ways in which the drill could be improved for next time.
“I think we are a little bit excited now for future drills,” said Van Loan. “We are going to be doing this a few more times and I hope we can doctor it to make it a better learning experience for everyone.”