Communications Review - 1989 Earthquake
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San Francisco Fire Department Review and Recommendations

Communications Review

Central Fire Alarm Station (CFAS) suffered minimal damage during the earthquake because the building had been seismically strengthened and dispatch consoles, status board and other equipment were anchored as a precaution against earthquake damage. Similarly, components of the Department's telephone, street telegraph and radio systems had also been seismically strengthened by the Department of Electricity and Telecommunications during the past 10 years.

In the mid-1980's, CFAS was designated as the City's Emergency Operations Center to act as the seat of government during a disaster. The structure fulfilled this function, but not without concerns about space and facilities being expressed by those people who staffed the EOC during the emergency.

The call volume handled by the Fire Department dispatch staff of six went from a few calls per-hour before the earthquake, to upward of 500 calls per-hour during the 6 p.m. to midnight period.

The dispatch function was severely hampered by the progressive failure of the CAD system, as well as the failure of the 9-1-1 transfer system at the Hall of Justice and partial loss of commercial telephone service.

At the same time, Central Fire Alarm Station began to serve as the Emergency Operations Center, with a commensurate increase of staffing from other City agencies.

Even with the overwhelming call volume and the drastically increased dispatch load, Fire Department dispatchers were able to fulfill almost all calls for service, including Special- Call assistance to the Division of Airports, initiation and transmission of the Modified Assignment Response and Emergency Duty Recall signals, coordination of ambulance responses as well as the handling of emergency service requests from other City agencies.

Seventeen recalled dispatch personnel returned to duty within two hours of the earthquake, and this somewhat helped ease the load upon the dispatch system.

There are, however, still several problem areas that are to be examined.

1. The rising demand for fire service caused the Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) to overload and it became necessary for supervisory personnel to shut down a portion of the computer system to maintain other functions of the communications system.

2. The radio system became overloaded because of the excessive number of dispatches, calls for assistance and excessive narrative messages. As a result, delays occurred in the dispatch of calls and handling of field requests for assistance.

3. Inadequate facilities for the Emergency Operations Center located within the Central Fire Alarm Station building caused non-Fire Department personnel to use emergency telephone lines on dispatch consoles, including operating 9-1-1 lines, which further limited and delayed Fire Department response to some calls.

4. Dispatch personnel developed an ad-hoc system to prioritize calls as the emergency progressed. This was an example of flexibility and ingenuity, but it also indicates the need for formal procedures and training to cope with such conditions.

Communications Recommendations

1. Replace the CAD system which was installed in 1974.

2. Expand the number of emergency radio frequencies for use during disasters.

3. Update communications procedures manual to impose better radio procedures upon dispatchers and field units.

4. Clearly separate the EOC functions from the Fire Department communications functions so personnel working within the EOC will not impact Fire Department operations.

5. Develop procedures and protocols for disaster response to include:

A. Establishment of a system to prioritize response to incidents.

B. Implement the Incident Command System (ICS).

C. Predetermined personnel assignments for disaster response.

D. Expanded exercises and training at the Communications Center to include scheduled and unscheduled drills.

Department Planning Review
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