UPDATED Fire department addresses leak handling concerns
Updated at 4:50 p.m. Wednesday, October 6
Alameda’s top fire official and officials with the Alameda Unified School District said they’re working to address concerns raised by Bay Farm Island residents over the handling of a September 28 gas leak.
Interim Fire Chief Michael Fisher said the department plans to offer evacuation and emergency preparedness training to officials with the Alameda Unified School District, and to help with shelter-in-place plans for the principal of Bay Farm Elementary School, which is less than two blocks from where the leak occurred.
Parents have raised concerns about the school’s decision to release students as scheduled while natural gas spewed into the air. The school voluntarily evacuated remaining students after most had already gone home, one parent said.
“This meant children were walking and biking home into an area saturated with natural gas. Speaking to parents who lived down-wind of the leak, they said the smell was overwhelming and sickening,” one parent wrote in an e-mail to school board members. “It’s scary to think that some of those children may have been going home to empty houses.”
Fisher said the department notified the school’s principal, Stephen Riave, of the city’s shelter-in-place order shortly after they got the call about the gas leak, at 2:04 p.m. And while residents said that they didn’t see fire trucks until 2:45 p.m. or 2:50 p.m., Fisher said the department was on scene “within three or four minutes” of getting the call.
But Superintendent Kirsten Vital said Riave only learned of the order after the students had gone and he had investigated things on his own. She said department officials have since told Riave they didn’t inform him of the leak and the shelter in place order because they didn’t think the school was in danger, and they feared creating a “bigger situation with students and parents walking and driving into the areas that were blocked off.”
“When Stephen asked him if he should evacuate – he did,” Vital said. The school is having a “full release” drill on October 21, according to a letter that went home to families.
Vital said issues that still need to be addressed include improved communications from emergency services to schools and residents, clarification of what triggers an evacuation and how schools can work together in the event of a disaster.
Residents have also complained about what they felt was a lack of notification regarding the leak. A resident who sent The Island a video of the leak last week said she got her first information about the leak shortly after 3 p.m. when her homeowners association sent an e-mail about the leak. The resident said she called the Alameda Police Department a half hour earlier and couldn’t get any information. She said she didn’t get a call from the city about the leak and its shelter-in-place order until 4 p.m.
She said the official version of events – a press release from the city manager’s office Tuesday evening – didn’t match what she observed.
“No one at anytime came to my house, told us to shelter-in-place, prepare to evacuate or explain what was happening,” the woman, who did not give The Island permission to identify her, said.
Fisher said the city’s CodeRed notification system sent out three calls over the course of the leak, though he couldn’t immediately say when the first call went out. The system, which was put in place following an outcry over poor notification of a daylong building fire on former Navy property in March 2009, is dependent in part on members of the public giving the city their cell, pager, work and unlisted home phone numbers. Residents can plug in their contact information here.
He said the department will also create a public service announcement about the CodeRed system and sheltering in place, and that the department will be holding an emergency operations center exercise on November 10.
The leak occurred at 2:20 p.m. when work crews struck a four-inch gas distribution line on Aughinbaugh Way near Sea View Parkway. It took crews from Pacific Gas & Electric, which owns the line, nearly four hours to cap the leak. An overwhelming odor of gas hung over Bay Farm’s Island Drive entrance as a reporter arrived, at about 5:15 p.m., and the hissing sound of gas could be heard as residents drove home from work and children bicycled around the neighborhood.
Nerves are on edge about these types of incidents following a gas pipe explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people.