San Francisco Police Officer Jim Cunningham was one of the first emergency responders to arrive at the Asiana Airlines plane crash July 6 at San Francisco International Airport, pulling victims and their belongings out of the wreckage while only wearing a short-sleeve uniform and no protective gear.
"We did our best to get the passengers out of the plane before the black smoke started sucking all of the oxygen out," Cunningham later told local media.
While he has been widely praised for his heroism, Police Commissioner Carol Kingsley last week raised the question of officer safety in such situations.
"Is it standard equipment to have masks for this kind of thing?" she asked Police Chief Greg Suhr at Wednesday's commission meeting.
The short answer is "no," and Suhr said that's why Cunningham rescued victims while unprotected.
A strong smell of fuel reportedly permeated through the Asiana wreckage, and though smoke was above first responders initially, their luck didn't last, said Fire Lt. Mindy Talmadge. All Fire Department responders wore hazmat suits, which is a requirement for such rescue operations -- and for good reason, she said.
"By the time they were getting the last of the people that were trapped in there, the smoke was getting to be pretty thick and they would've been breathing it in," Talmadge said. "Any amount of smoke is toxic."
Yet unlike the Fire Department, San Francisco police had no protective gear.
The training required to qualify to wear hazmat suits is often beyond the scope of the average officer, Suhr said. Only SWAT teams and certain specialists are certified. Officers usually only need the gear in rare instances, Suhr said, such as trying to find a suspect in a burning building.
"We have enough [trained officers] so if we needed someone in a hot zone ... our guys could go in and neutralize a target," he said.
The Asiana crash, however, required such a quick response that officers would not have had time to go through the laborious process of putting on a hazmat suit, Suhr said. Firefighters, on the other hand, can jump into their hazmat suits, gas mask, air tanks, helmet and hoses in less than 60 seconds, Talmadge said.
Police used to have better access to hazmat gear, as it was provided through grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, said Officer Albie Esparza. But that money soon dried up and the "suits have been gone for years," he said.
The Governor's Office of Emergency Services, which administers the Homeland Security grants, was not available for comment.