San Bruno blast response had glitch — cell phone reception 

In the critical hours after a deadly pipeline explosion tore through San Bruno on Sept. 9, county officials coordinated their response in a room well-known for blocking cell phone signals.

Fortunately, only a few communication glitches disrupted the massive emergency response to the natural-gas blast, according to a report by the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services, which highlighted the lack of cell phone coverage in the county’s emergency operations center as a serious concern.

During major incidents, the county sets up the center in the jury assembly room in the basement of the Hall of Justice in Redwood City. From there, top officials receive status updates and make decisions about deploying resources, such as portable toilets and personnel, Sheriff’s Office Lt. Ed Barberini said.

While there are radios and landline phones, the basement location makes officials’ cell phones useless while they are there.

A lack of cell reception did not cause any problems during the San Bruno incident, but it is a “genuine concern,” Barberini said. It could be especially crucial if a major earthquake hit and the center was expanded to include officials from all 20 cities on the Peninsula.

“The county’s aware of it and the county understands the problems, and we are looking for opportunities to improve and maybe relocate,” Barberini said. “But there’s no concrete plan in place right now.”

Overall, though, Barberini said officials were “grasping at straws” to find fault with the response to the San Bruno disaster — the worst in county history in terms of casualties and property damage. Eight people died, at least 66 were injured and 38 homes were destroyed, according to the report, which was released Friday.

“Usually in after-action reports, you get some glaring issues where some large components of the system didn’t work,” Barberini said, “and in this instance, we found nothing like that. It was very smooth.”

However, the report highlighted a weak spot in the county’s emergency response system that might have a greater, graver impact during a subsequent disaster.

The report said some workers reported that cell phone service was spotty in San Bruno and the county’s emergency center, and local command posts in San Bruno could have made more-frequent calls to check in. 

The Peninsula Controller’s Office is still tabulating the costs of the response, which involved nearly every county department, county spokesman Marshall Wilson said. That process might take several more weeks, he said.

Stepping up to help

The initial response to the San Bruno natural-gas pipeline explosion in September involved multiple San Mateo County agencies.

22 Fire engines
4 Ladder trucks
7 Battalion chiefs
4 Other fire vehicles from San Mateo County
281 Personnel
4 Air tankers from CalFire
150 Law enforcement officers during first six hours
33 Medics in first 24 hours

Source: San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services

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