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Overview of Fire Service Responses
near the Epicenter of the Loma Prieta Earthquake
This article was written by Edward J. Phipps, a retired chief of the San Francisco Fire Department, and is used with his permission.
In the community of Watsonville, five miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, about 90 percent of the structural damage was from the failure of unreinforced masonry buildings and wooden structures which were not properly bolted to foundations.

There was one death in Watsonville, and no significant Urban Search and Rescue requirements.

In Santa Cruz, to the north of Watsonville, 135 residential structures suffered major damage; two commercial retail areas were also severely damaged. The most significant damage occurred when several unreinforced masonry buildings collapsed in the Pacific Garden Mall with the first shock of earthquake.

photo of Pacific Garden Mall in Santa Cruz

Battalion Chief Wayne Peterson walked down Pacific Street to the mall area after the earthquake to determine the severity of damage and to find out how many people were trapped. He said, "I could see the collapse of the interior of Ford's [department store] from where we set up command at Cathcart and Pacific." At the same time, fragmentary reports were coming into the 911 center from citizens about the collapse of buildings in the mall.

Pacific Operation Command Post – known as PAC OPS – was established by Battalion Chief Peterson who was also designated as the Incident Commander utilizing ICS. This chief officer had 14 Divisions operating under him. Each division encompassed a single incident and was under the command of a captain.

A temporary morgue was also established at the Emeline County Building near the mall shortly before 7 p.m.

At the time the command post was set up, many citizens were already at work attempting to free victims from the rubble of Ford's Department store and the Coffee Roasting Company in the mall area.

A member of the Fire Department walked along the mall with a bullhorn and warned people to leave the area because of unsafe conditions.

Two police officers then crawled into the wreckage of the Coffee Roasting Company and found one victim alive and another dead on the second floor. Lifeguards from the nearby beach area assisted in removing those victims.

Other lifeguards were organized into search and rescue teams under the direction of a police captain. Their operations were supported by two police dogs which were used in the initial search for more victims.

Street blockage was not a serious problem and alternative routes were available at all times to allow emergency vehicles to enter the damaged areas. Bridges initially closed after the earthquake were inspected and quickly reopened to emergency traffic.

Coordination of the movement of mutual aid companies into Santa Cruz was good, with the California Highway Patrol working with Caltrans to expedite the movement of apparatus.

The primary search of all structures in the mall area was completed after midnight, and a more thorough secondary search of the area was then begun.

The first OES strike team arrived from Sonoma County shortly after 3 a.m., and reported to PAC OPS around 8:30 a.m. with heavy rescue equipment, and a call for shoring materials went out at that time.

Santa Cruz ultimately received six strike teams, but their initial request for assistance was lost somewhere within the communications system.

Fire officials did not realize that the call was lost until the OES Area Coordinator arrived at the Santa Cruz Fire Protection District offices.

There was also some hesitation in requesting strike teams because of the perception, driven by the media, that larger cities in the Bay Area were in greater need of resources.

In Watsonville, personnel in the Emergency Operations Center watched television coverage of the collapse of the Bay Bridge and Cypress freeway and felt that "The Big One" had struck in the Bay Area and that Santa Cruz County was on its own.

This perception somewhat skewed the mutual aid response to jurisdictions in Santa Cruz County, and impacted the Urban Search and Rescue operations at the Pacific Garden Mall.

After the earthquake, the California Fire Chief's Earthquake Response Committee later found that:

"The fire and Rescue Division of OES should be given the financial support and organizational strength to provide aggressive proactive leadership during a major earthquake disaster. The Loma Prieta earthquake shows us that local fire chiefs do not have the capacity to understand the full magnitude of damages for hours after the initial earthquake. The local prediction of the amount of equipment and personnel needed is difficult at best. OES Fire and Rescue has the ability to scope the bigger picture much quicker than the local fire chief. For that reason our mutual aid system for earthquakes must be different than for normal fire and rescue mutual aid. The response system should be designed so OES Fire and Rescue leadership has the power to request and coordinate regional support based on the magnitude and location of the earthquake epicenter, without waiting for local requests to move the system forward."

Heavy Rescue equipment to support the Pacific Garden Mall operation was basically adequate, but there was a significant problem in finding transport for shoring materials needed at the scene.

The cellular telephone system serving Santa Cruz remained operational throughout the earthquake period and was an important communications link for the fire department. Radio communications within the department were adequate, with 16 radio frequencies available to it on portables.

At 9 p.m., about four hours after the earthquake, there was a need for more search dogs to complete the secondary search and U.S. Border Patrol animals were utilized. Ultimately, six teams of dogs were used; most of which came from the Monterey Bay Search Dogs, California Area Rescue Dog Association and the Santa Cruz Police Department.

Search buildings were initially identified with crayon markings, but the fire department was later able to obtain spray paint cans, and all markings thereafter were done with spray paint.

The operations at the mall became so large during the first evening that two city buses were utilized at the command post for urban search and rescue operations. Operations were restricted to daylight hours in heavily damaged areas, and 24-hour operations in lightly damage areas because of unsafe structural conditions and continuing aftershocks, of which some measured up to magnitude-5 on the Richter scale.

Citizens who initially organized themselves for the first rescues later proved a hindrance to operations, and became alarmed when rescue operations were halted because of the extreme danger of unstable buildings.

A few citizens attempted to continue operations themselves during the evening hours and were arrested by police. This later became a political issue in Santa Cruz.

Some of the problems faced by the Santa Cruz Fire Protection District were:

1. Fire Relay Stations in the mountains did not check in for hours.

2. There weren't enough radios to support Public Works activities at the Pacific Garden Mall rescues.

3. The Santa Cruz EOC experienced a power failure and the fire chief set up command in the City Hall parking lot.

4. Gasoline was hard to obtain to refuel apparatus and rescue equipment.

5. Overload of 911 and communications facilities.

Overloaded and incomplete communications were one issue faced by all departments within the earthquake zone.

This latter problem is demonstrated by 9-1-1 telephone calls received at the Santa Cruz Communications Center immediately after the earthquake.

Caller confusion and dispatcher stress also combined to impede the flow of proper information to responding firefighting companies.

The Santa Clara County Fire Protection District serves almost all of the unincorporated portions and some smaller towns of Santa Clara County.

The chief of the department is Doug Sporleder.

Generally speaking, there were no victims trapped in fallen structures within the department's jurisdiction and no victims killed.

Collapses in downtown Los Gatos were restricted to unreinforced masonry construction, of which most were two or three stories. In most cases the brick fronting of these structures fell into the street, with the brick fall extending a maximum of 35 feet from the structure. This was not sufficient to impede emergency vehicle access.

A large number of older single-family dwellings shifted from their foundations during the earthquake. This was generally caused by a lack of solid foundations or failure to anchor the structure properly to the foundation. Significantly, there were no deaths or injuries as these buildings shifted or tilted from their foundations.

There were several fires, of which six were classified as major. There were also natural gas leaks, broken water pipes, explosions and emergency medical calls. The EMS system was quickly overwhelmed, and members of the Fire Prevention Bureau were given first aid kits and then assigned to assist the County Ambulance Service which handled medical calls. This had the effect of allowing the department's street apparatus to handle other emergencies.

Although there were no rescues from collapsed structures, it was still necessary to search all fallen structures for possible victims.

Problems encountered:

Debris did block some streets and there was some difficulty driving through rubble.

Searching unstable structures was dangerous because of severe aftershocks.

Responding companies did not keep documentation of incidents handled.

A debriefing held after the earthquake was not successful because firefighters were more interested in discussing allied complaints rather than specific operating problems.

What Went Right:

Mutual Aid— Immediately after cessation of the shaking, a call was placed to the State Office of Emergency Services for 25 strike teams. Those teams arrived within five hours.

Recalled Personnel— Almost all off-duty firefighters returned immediately to duty. It was not necessary to issue a recall order.

Communications— There was no significant problem with radio communications. Cellular service continued to function, and firefighters were able check on the well being of their families by cellular telephone from the field.

Agency Liaison— Police and other departments worked well together within the Emergency Operations Center.

Fuel Supply— There were no serious problems with fuel supplies. A fuel tanker was called for, and units staged at Lexington Reservoir were supplied the needed fuel throughout the earthquake period.

Search and Rescue— Searching unstable structures presented a major problem and the department was criticized for calling off searches during numerous major aftershocks.

However, the outcome showed that chancing a loss of life or injury to a firefighter, where no life safety was involved, would have been incorrect procedures.

This is, and apparently will continue to be, a major problem. Conducting or not conducting a search under these conditions is a decision that is left to the company officer or the incident commander. The responsible officer's decision must be clinical and unemotional, with the chances of a successful rescue being accomplished.

The lifesafety factor and the possibility of becoming part of the problem rather than the solution, is a significant decision.

All buildings searched were marked with chalk, with either "okay" or "searched" marked upon structures. These two phrases being accepted because there is no universal marking.

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