The nearly complete Chase Center as viewed from Third Street on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Fire department drill finds traffic around Chase Arena could slow response time

For years, some have feared the future home of the Golden State Warriors — Chase Center Arena — could cause traffic problems for emergency vehicles speeding toward the UCSF hospitals nearby.

The real test will come when the arena opens on Sept. 6. But new data from test runs conducted by the San Francisco Fire Department in late July found that traffic was already bad enough in Mission Bay to slow emergency vehicles a full two months before Chase Center was set to open, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

In a perhaps ironic twist, the emergency vehicle stuck in traffic wasn’t headed to UCSF Medical Center or UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, but to Chase Center itself.

The July emergency vehicle response test — simulating a one-alarm fire at Chase Center — found that it took one ambulance 24 minutes to travel from downtown to Chase Center Arena, more than double the average response time for similar calls in San Francisco.

Other vehicles in the test did fare better. But unlike the ambulance that was stuck in traffic, those vehicles were positioned at a fire station only blocks away to begin with.

The broad mix of fire engines and ambulances arrived Chase Center on average between six and eleven minutes after being dispatched, but the vehicles that did not arrive in a timely fashion spurred concern with Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson.

At an August 14 San Francisco Fire Commission meeting, she sounded the alarm.

“There are definitely some traffic challenges” in the neighborhood, Nicholson told the fire commissioners.

When informed of the fire drill test results, Chase Center Arena spokesperson P.J. Johnston said Chase Senter’s security team has worked closely with the fire department, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and other city officials to plan emergency responses to the arena, including exploring best routes.

“We have full confidence in the SFFD to provide excellent emergency response to Chase Center, under any and all conditions, when the venue opens to the public,” Johnston said in a statement.

Not everyone shares his confidence.

“That’s very concerning and obviously unacceptable, and we have to fix that,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents Mission Bay, among other neighborhoods, where Chase Center lies.

“Safety should be the top priority,” he said.

Before it was built, advocates fought Chase Center’s construction, fearing traffic snarls would endanger patients in emergency vehicles headed to the nearby UCSF Medical Center or UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

This month UCSF posted a calendar marked with “Yellow Days” for Chase Center events with fewer than 10,000 attendees, and “Red Days” for events with more than 10,000 attendees, or days where the nearby Oracle Park is expected to hold events on the same day as Chase Center.

UCSF’s September calendar, for instance, is a sea of yellow and red.

But even before that colorful forecast comes to fruition, the fire department’s drill still found challenges for emergency vehicles.

In the department’s July 24 exercise, the fire department aimed at simulating a one-alarm fire. Not all aspects of the test could fully replicate one — importantly, sirens and flashing lights could not be used because California State Vehicle Code prohibits vehicles from using them in non-emergencies.

Despite that caveat, Chief Nicholson told the fire commission that that only accounts for “some of the delay.”

And the fire department does routinely respond to medical emergencies without lights and sirens in some cases. These are called a “Code 2,” in fire department parlance, which means a non-life-threatening medical emergency like a broken limb.

The Department of Public Health also participated in the test.

The department drove “vehicles in the area as if they were trying to get a kid to the hospital there,” Nicholson said in a previous fire commission meeting.

The fire engines and other response vehicles that arrived at Chase Center quickly, one in just four minutes, came from Fire Station Four, only a few blocks away. But ambulances, which roam about The City in order to be proximate to emergencies, had less luck and arrived in 24 minutes.

That’s “exactly what we expected,” said Bruce Spaulding, a retired senior vice chancellor of UCSF.

Spaulding led a group called the Mission Bay Alliance, which opposed Chase Center Arena’s construction but ultimately lost the legal battle against The City and the late Mayor Ed Lee, who fought hard to bring the Golden State Warriors across the bay.

For Spaulding, the poor ambulance response time is a vindication. And, he added, that snarl took place a month before events at Chase Center are expected to begin.

“The first time there are double events at both Chase Center and Oracle Park is September 10,” he said, “which is going to be a nightmare.”

UCSF officials were unaware of the details of the fire department’s drills, but in a statement from a spokesperson said “We at UCSF are taking this very seriously” and will “be closely monitoring the situation.”

However, they also pointed out that during events, SFMTA plans to roll out traffic control officers and other measures to mitigate traffic concerns.

The hospital has been working with SFMTA to ensure that a “Local Hospital Access Plan” UCSF negotiated with the Warriors and The City is instituted, so that the hospital’s patients, including those arriving by emergency vehicles, will be able to access the hospital in a “safe and timely way,” a medical center spokesperson wrote.

Some officials speaking to the Examiner indicated construction on the Lefty O’Doul Bridge, or Third Street Bridge, could have also impacted traffic during the test.

A Public Works calendar of construction lists bridge closures for July 7 to July 17 and July 25 to August 5. The fire department traffic drill took place on July 24, a day of no scheduled construction or closures.

The emergency vehicles moved with the “regular flow of traffic,” Nicholson said.

That traffic was simply less than ideal.

joe@sfexaminer.com

 

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