Almanac

Viewpoint - November 20, 2013

Editorial: Many missed warnings on toxic cloud

Luckily, it wasn't even close to being the "Big One," the massive earthquake that residents fear could hit the Bay Area anytime. But when a major fire broke out at the Sims scrap metal recycling complex in Redwood City Nov. 10, it enveloped much of the Midpeninsula in a pall of foul-smelling smoke.

For many residents, much of that pain came from not knowing what had suddenly happened to the air quality in their neighborhood. Although no one has exact numbers, the "shelter in place" advisory issued by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, apparently did not come close to reaching the thousands of households impacted by the acrid smoke.

When the department sent out an emergency message Sunday to the more than 13,000 phone numbers in its database, connections were made with only 7,828 people. The problems were typical — busy signals, people hanging up, reaching phone numbers that were no longer in service or using an overloaded network. San Mateo County also sent out warnings, but it is not clear when and how many went out.

To its credit, the Menlo Park Police Department acted quickly to make changes in the system so that on a second try, every number was called three times, instead of once, with five minutes between each attempt. Many more people, 10,000-plus, did connect, a substantial improvement over the first effort.

But countless households, including many in the unincorporated county areas, were left in the dark because they had not signed up for the alerts, although the department also used Twitter and Facebook to get the word out about this emergency. The city's primary system is designed to notify land line and cellular telephones, as well as email addresses, which means people must sign up to receive notifications and make sure to keep their contact information current.

Last Sunday's fire was a wake-up call, especially for those who are not on the city's call list. Commander Dave Bertini, a spokesman for the department, said that during an emergency like a major earthquake, all phone service and email could go down, but text messages might squeeze through as was the case during the Boston Marathon bombing.

The Sims fire exposed numerous shortcomings in the area's emergency notification system, although the police and other local and county government agencies cannot send you a message unless you provide them the information. To learn more about how to sign up, see the story on Page 5.

Many residents were expecting police to patrol the neighborhoods using loudspeakers to let people know what was happening. Cmdr. Bertini said that officers would have patrolled the streets using their public address systems if the "shelter in place" alert had been an order instead of being advisory. So far, it is not known if anyone was seriously injured by breathing the smoke, although many complaints about extreme discomfort were registered on the Almanac's online Town Square forum.

Now it is up to state, county and city authorities to hold the Sims company accountable for this event. After a large fire fueled by crushed cars erupted at the same site in April 2007, Sims was cited by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District when toxic residue from the blaze fouled nearby wetlands. This time, no citations have been issued, although it is time for the authorities to consider revoking Sims' permit to operate at the site. Even if the company is not found responsible for starting the fire, its operations are accident-prone and put thousands of people in the surrounding neighborhoods at risk.

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