City Needs Viable Emergency Water Supply

An article in the September Alameda Magazine entitled "It’s Not Just the Earthquake: It’s the Inferno" proved very timely. On the Sept. 15 City Council meeting agenda were recommendations from city staff for how to spend $14.5 million in surplus general funds.

One item included for potential funding was an emergency water supply to combat fires in the likely event the three East Bay Municipal Utilities District water mains that supply water to the island are severed during a major seismic event.

The report from the City Council packet noted, "The fire department has extensively researched emergency water supply systems that would use salt water from the bay for firefighting operations in the event that the city loses domestic water pressure due to a disaster. The systems researched include water tenders (water tankers); above-ground water mains (hoses) supplied by portable pumps; underground storage tanks placed throughout the city; and an in-ground saltwater main system."

Due to cost, ease of implementation and the need for only minimal training, the Alameda Fire Department (AFD) recommended two 2,500-gallon tanker trucks, which the council approved with a 4-0 vote, with Councilman Tony Daysog abstaining.

I want to compare the efficacy of tanker trucks to a portable pump system chosen by the city of Berkeley and paid for with a $9.6 million bond. Berkeley’s system includes two Hytrans pumps from the Netherlands and six miles of 12-inch hose. The Berkeley system includes two ramps. AFD feels such a multi-component system would require too much manpower to deploy and cumbersome factors like the 12" hose blocking streets to be a liability. The tankers require assistance from our existing fire boat.

According to city staff, "As one is supplying water at the fire incident, the other would be refilling at the fire boat. Once at the fire scene, the tenders would either supply the fire engines directly, or dump their 2,500-gallon water capacity into portable pools from which the fire engines would then draft the water. Operation of each tanker requires two firefighters."

The cost of our tankers is $800,000 which is 8.3 percent the cost Berkeley system which is intended to reach the hills, contrasted to Alameda which is flat and surrounded by water. Our historic island is two miles wide and six miles long which would seem to make our island much more accessible by portable pumps than Berkeley. The decisions of the two groups of professionals appear contradictory.

The Alameda County Fire Department owns a 2,500-gallon tanker. The Alameda Magazine article states that that truck can supply one hand line for 10 minutes, which is "essentially enough to combat a blazing single family home. Although it takes only seven minutes to refill … it would likely take too much time to move around to be very useful in a large scale conflagration."

Post-quake fires are likely to be such conflagrations. Our fire boat itself was described as "a water source for just about anywhere within the city," which I believe to be misleading since the entire

South Shore is too shallow to be approached by a large vessel.

The agenda item included a request for "an additional allocation of $75,000 to retain a consultant to study other methods for emergency water delivery systems as means for building redundancy." I inferred from Interim Assistant City Manager Bob Haun’s said that this study would apply to an extensive underground system, not pumps.

Haun did mention that the oldest water main on the Island has recently been replaced with others to follow, so one can imagine that it would be most effective to study an underground system sooner than later. The City Council declined to allocate funds for the study.

Alameda has a high concentration of wood-frame Victorian-era homes, some valued at more than $1 million and built very close together. These buildings lend a great deal to the ambiance for which Alameda is known. It is likely that, in a post quake fire, possibly fed by natural gas, entire neighborhoods could ignite like a book of matches.

The discussion at City Council left me unsatisfied with more questions than answers. Perhaps a less costly study of portable salt water pumps would be prudent.

A wider, more thorough, public discussion may lead to the conclusion that such a system is not viable, or is simply beyond our means, but we should engage in such a dialogue, now.

Mark Irons lives in Alameda.