Thursday, September 1, 2011

PG&E San Bruno Disaster: A Simple Lesson in Poor Emergency Response

Non-natural disasters aren't random events. When investigators trace an incident back to root causes and fundamental flaws, they paint a picture of a disaster-in-waiting that is as clear as a high-definition video. On September 9, 2010, a natural gas line operated by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and running through San Bruno, California, exploded. Eight people were killed and 58 others were injured. More than 100 homes were destroyed or damaged. 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its report on the explosion and it is hard to fathom the depth of inadequacy PG&E demonstrated in its response to this accident. 

The section of pipeline that ruptured was installed in 1956. The NTSB report states that the section of pipe that blew was fabricated at un undetermined facility to no known specification. 

The report also states that the pipeline as installed in 1956 would not have met the standards in effect at the time. So not only was it a crappy pipeline in 2010, but crappy when it was installed. The gas pipeline equivalent of the Ford Pinto

From an emergency response perspective, the company fails again. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, "The company had no written emergency response plan,' said NTSB investigator Matthew Nicholson." It took PG&E more than 90 minutes to shut off the gas, a fact the NTSB determined "contributed to the extent and severity of property damage and increased the life-threatening risks to the residents and emergency responders."

NTSB investigators found that PG&E's gas emergency plan was ineffective (probably because it wasn't written down) and that "many people self-dispatched" to the accident. So, whomever decided to show up, got to play disaster man. 

History may be made by those who show up, but it's a lousy way to run your emergency response.

The simple lesson here is that emergency response plans have to be tested. To do that, they must first be written down

PG&E issued a fairly comprehensive list of actions it has taken and lessons learned in the aftermath of the San Bruno disaster. 

It's too bad the company had to level a neighborhood to learn them. 

Bill Salvin

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