It’s a warm summer day in San Diego. The temperature is 85 degrees, the relative humidity is 30 percent, and winds are out of the west at 10 to 15 miles per hour. A utility crew from San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) is performing maintenance on a broken cross-arm on a wooden 69-kilovolt transmission pole. Suddenly, a phase-to-phase contact causes a shower of sparks, igniting the dry grass below. The fire grows quickly and blackens several square feet of grass around the pole. A crew from SDG&E’s wildfire contractor, Fire Stop, has been working next to the utility crew. As a precaution, the Fire Stop crew had already positioned a dry hose line within 25 feet of where the fire started and had placed firefighting hand tools and a dry chemical extinguisher nearby.
Preparedness Pays Off
The Fire Stop captain calls to his engineer on the Type 6 Wildland Fire Engine to charge the fire hose line, checks with the working foreman to make sure that 911 has been called, and then begins to administer first aid to the SDG&E lineman for a minor injury.
Even as the fire agency with jurisdiction for the area (Cal Fire) gets ready to roll to the scene, the Fire Stop firefighter shoots 35 gallons of water to extinguish the now 15-square-foot area of burning grass. He then uses his McLeod (a hand tool with a scraper on one side and a rake on the other) to scrape the burned area to bare dirt, after which he applies another 15 gallons of water to make sure the fire is out.
At that point, the Cal Fire Type 3 Fire Engine arrives, and the crew meets with the Fire Stop captain to get a briefing on the fire. No ambulance was requested. The Cal Fire captain cancels the balance of the incident assignment and gathers the information needed for the fire and injury incident report. The SDG&E fire coordinator arrives within moments of the Cal Fire engine and checks to see if all aspects of the fire and injury response went well. The incident report will be completed and filed with SDG&E management before the end of the day.
Creative Approach to Fire Prevention
Incidents like the one described above occur often in Southern California, but, unfortunately, don’t always end as well. Fire conditions in the region are hazardous to extreme for much of the year due to nearly a decade of drought and seasonal Santa Ana winds that too often have whipped small fires into catastrophic infernos. In this case, such devastation was avoided. Trying to reduce the potential for another major wildfire in its service territory is the goal of SDG&E’s innovative fire-prevention partnership with Fire Stop.
Utility, Contract Firefighters Are Good Combination
In 2009, SDG&E implemented a pilot program to determine whether using a private fire-fighting contractor could reduce the risk of runaway wildfires and provide on-site emergency medical care to utility crews working in the field. As many as eight private fire engines and crews, along with a strike team leader and a fire agency representative were deployed daily from Sept. 1 through Dec. 12 under the direction of SDG&E fire coordinators. Fire Stop provided the apparatus, equipment, staff and supervision for the pilot program. SDG&E’s fire coordinators worked with the utility’s district managers and local fire officials to develop the scope and operational guidelines of the program. Each morning, an Incident Command System (ICS) Action Plan would be published and distributed to SDG&E, Fire Stop engine companies and local fire authorities to outline the assignments for the day.
Teamwork Starts with Safety
Every morning, Fire Stop staff took part in a safety briefing with their assigned utility crew and monitored weather in their work area and reported it to SDG&E’s meteorologist. Fire Stop’s engines reacted to ignitions, medical emergencies and hazardous materials calls as needed by the utility crews on SDG&E property and within the utility’s rights-of way. SDG&E also sent standby utility crews with fire apparatus to high fire risk areas overnight during Red Flag fire and wind events to provide a quick response to system issues and to ensure maximum safety for residents of SDG&E’s service territory in San Diego and southern Orange counties.
This pilot program successfully combined the experience and expertise of utility crews and private fire crews who focused on the common goal of working safely in a fire-prone ecosystem. The innovation and leadership of SDG&E, its fire coordinators and the San Diego Fire Chiefs Association have shown that this concept can reduce the risk of runaway wildfires and provide on-site emergency medical support without compromising the public agencies’ ability to deliver those services in areas under their jurisdiction.
Applying Lessons Learned
Firefighters say, “The only good wildfire is the one that didn’t get away.” The framework for this fire service cooperative effort began in 1970 after devastating wildfires in Southern California. The formation of FIRESCOPE (Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies) identified the major components needed to combat large-scale emergencies: the development of a collaborative fire management approach that includes the Incident Command System (ICS) and the Multi-Agency Coordination System (MACS).
Utility Adopts Crisis Management System
Utility companies nationwide, including electric, gas and steam, interact on a regular basis with emergency response personnel. Often, the utility-related aspects of an incident are a key element in the overall safety of the public and emergency responders. The basic premise of ICS suggests that the management of emergency incidents should integrate all incident personnel in a positive “command and control” environment. ICS is a time-tested successful way to manage emergencies. Some version of ICS is used by nearly every emergency management agency in the world, so it’s only logical that utility participation would be a tremendous benefit.
SDG&E has been exploring the integration of ICS principles and concepts to manage internal, utility-only incidents, as well as those that involve other emergency management agencies. SDG&E has trained most of its operational staff in the basics of ICS. Many SDG&E supervisors have received additional advanced training with the goal to develop leaders within the utility’s ranks who can serve as Incident Commanders during utility-related crises in the future.
SDG&E has used the ICS management structure successfully to handle a number of major internal incidents over the past few years. SDG&E also shared its success stories with ConEdison in New York, which also has made significant advances in implementing ICS. This collaboration has benefited both utilities. Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric also have started to use ICS within their organizations.
The decision to contract with Fire Stop for part of the 2009 fire season to provide preventive, on-the-spot fire response offered SDG&E the chance to work with ICS in real time and it showcased the many advantages of the system, convincing even the most skeptical utility personnel that the collaborative approach works. While change is not always easy, the advantages of ICS sell themselves. With every successful ICS experience, SDG&E gains more employee buy-in, greater appreciation and creates more believers in this vital emergency management technique.
About the Authors: Hal Mortier has served as Fire Coordinator at SDG&E for six years after a full career in wildland firefighting with the U.S. Forest Service. He serves as a liaison between emergency management agencies and the utility. His responsibilities include acting as the utility Agency Representative on complex emergencies, serving as subject matter expert for fire-related issues within the utility, providing internal and external fire-related training, and leading the company’s fire prevention program.
Jeff Meston has served as the Fire Chief for Capstone Fire Management, Inc. (formerly known as Fire Stop) for the last year after a 30-year career in the Fire Service, retiring as Fire Chief for the Novato, Calif. Fire Protection District. Meston has an extensive background with fire service consulting, working for several municipalities, the State of California and Fortune 100 companies.video
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