Fire department leaders in San Bruno had not been trained by PG&E on the natural gas lines running underneath their streets before one exploded last September, the city’s fire chief testified Wednesday.
Fire Chief Dennis Haag, pipeline industry experts and PG&E all emphasized the need for better public outreach efforts and training for first responders on natural gas systems in the second of three days of National Transportation Safety Board hearings into the deadly San Bruno explosion.
“It’s a process of continuous improvement, both for the pipeline operators and the regulators,” testified Terry Boss, senior vice president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. “Unfortunately we do learn things as these events happen. We don’t want these events to happen, but we’ve got to continuously improve.”
Wednesday morning’s hearings focused on improving awareness of the gas lines that snake between communities across the country as investigators questioned witnesses from gas industry groups, a pipeline watchdog organization, federal regulators and PG&E.
Haag echoed the sentiment of many San Bruno residents, saying that he personally had no idea there was a 30-inch transmission line running through the community prior to the Sept. 9 explosion and inferno that that killed eight and destroyed 38 homes.
Since the explosion, PG&E has given local responders pipeline maps, but Haag also admitted that prior to the disaster, he didn’t know about a national pipeline mapping database that is available online and could have been consulted.
“We definitely could have done that but we did not,” Haag said.
Safety board investigators posed sharp questions to a PG&E representative about the utility’s outreach efforts to customers.
For the public, the utility stuffs educational materials in customers’ bills with information about the hazards of gas lines, said Aaron Rezendez, PG&E’s senior program manager for safety.
But investigators questioned the effectiveness of the materials and the company’s practice of relying on paper surveys to determine if they’re working.
At one point, Investigator Bob Trainor asked how Rezendez could explain that San Bruno’s fire chief did not know about the transmission line through his town prior to it exploding.
“I can’t,” Rezendez said.
Industry officials testified that crafting its safety messages to ensure people read them is crucial.
“You have messages that are going out to literally hundreds of thousands of people, and getting their attention, getting them to listen to that and ensuring they’re getting the message is the challenge here,” said Peter Lidiak, pipeline director for the American Petroleum Institute.
Industry representatives and fire officials both acknowledged their shared responsibility of better communication about gas pipelines.
“I don’t think you can have two much communication between those two parties,” said Jim Narva, executive director of the National Association of State Fire Marshalls.
PG&E provides materials to first responders about pipelines and holds annual informational meetings with first responders, though they did not mail maps of their local systems, Rezendez said.
Haag said prior to the disaster, PG&E had given generic training materials to some of his staff but had not shared details of the gas network with command staff officers.
Since the San Bruno explosion, however, Rezendez said the utility has shared pipeline maps with emergency responders in its service area and now allows customers to see maps of pipeline maps on PG&E’s web site.
Rezendez acknowledged a need for better coordination within the company on safety education efforts. “We’re actively working on that right now.”