Until a deadly explosion south of San Francisco last year, local firefighters had no idea there was a large gas transmission pipeline underneath their town — a recurring problem in pipeline accidents, federal safety officials said Wednesday.
Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which owned the line, did not tell the San Bruno fire department about it or provide a map with its location, the town's fire chief, Dennis Haag, told a National Transportation Safety Board hearing Wednesday. Gas company training materials provided to the fire department were generic, he said.
Haag acknowledged his department hadn't made use of a federal website that provides first responders with maps of gas lines in their community.
"We didn't have the information, we didn't have maps of a pipeline going through," Haag said. "We have heard today there is a system we can access. I just didn't know about it, to be honest with you."
When the pipeline exploded underneath a subdivision, residents and firefighters in the small town south of San Francisco International airport mistakenly thought a plane had crashed. Sixty-eight firefighters arrived on scene, but a giant fireball fed by escaping gas kept them from reaching many of the burning homes until the gas was turned off over an hour later, Haag said.
"Without the fuel supply there is a possibility we could have been in an offensive, rather than a defensive, mode," he said.
Even if he had known about the pipeline, Haag said he wouldn't have done anything differently to fight the fire.
Eight people were killed in the accident, including five whom coroner's reports indicate were fleeing, and dozens of homes were destroyed.
Aaron Rezendez, a PG&E official, said the company holds a meeting each year for San Francisco peninsula fire departments like San Bruno to talk about the company's pipelines, but it is usually attended by less than 20 people. He said there is a large map displayed at the meeting.
Haag said one of his officers attended the 2010 meeting.
Rezendez also said the company sends customers literature inside bills about pipeline safety and pipelines in their community, among other efforts to raise public awareness.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman noted that when PG&E sent 15,000 customers postcards asking them if they were aware of transmission lines in their community, the company received only 20 replies. Half the people who responded said they didn't know they had transmission lines nearby, she said.
PG&E recently launched a website in coordination with Google that allows customers to find the location of transmission pipelines in their neighborhoods.
NTSB investigators and safety advocates said a lack of public awareness about pipelines underneath their communities has been a recurring problem in accidents.
One reason is that gas companies start out by emphasizing that pipelines have a great safety record, which causes people to lose interest before they find out there is the potential for an accident and what they should do if one occurs, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group.
Federal regulators and the industry were admonished by NTSB in 2009 after a propane explosion in Carmichael, Miss., that killed two people and injured seven. Emergency dispatchers had not been informed the pipeline was there. If they had, investigators concluded, they could have immediately evacuated the area and warned people against doing anything that might ignite the cloud of gas.
An NTSB report also found that the victims' homes were left out of public mailings offering pipeline safety tips.
The Carmichael blast followed dozens of accidents since the 1970s in which companies and agencies were later faulted for sloppy or inadequate emergency response plans.
Utilities and pipeline companies also have been repeatedly admonished for failing to adequately mark their lines.
After the San Bruno accident, firefighters found gas company plastic stickers on sidewalks near the accident site, but some were unreadable and others appeared to be missing, Haag said.
Associated Press writers Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., and Garance Burke in San Francisco contributed to this report.