SF officials called to answer for delayed emergency response during heat wave

In the wake of an unprecedented heat wave in San Francisco that resulted in the deaths of three people, the department heads responsible for The City’s emergency response were called to answer at a hearing Wednesday for their shortcomings over Labor Day Weekend.

Officials from the Department of Emergency Management and Department of Public Health said the two-day heat wave caught them off guard when temperatures rose to a record-breaking 106 degrees on Sept. 1. The day prior, the National Weather Service issued a heat advisory warning San Francisco that temperatures would climb above 90 degrees.

“We were all surprised by the heat and how fast it started going up,” said DPH Director Barbara Garcia, who coordinated The City’s emergency response on Labor Day Weekend. “I don’t think we’ll be caught by surprise again.”

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Three seniors who lived alone died at home during the heat wave, according to Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who called for the hearing Wednesday at the Government Audit and Oversight Committee. None of the seniors had called for medical help.

Peskin criticized the departments for their public outreach efforts and for not opening cooling centers until the day after the heat wave began.

“The phones were ringing at 1011 Turk St. but it’s not until the next day that we’re opening up cooling centers,” Peskin said, referring to the overloaded 911 dispatch center in The City’s Western Addition.

It was so hot in San Francisco that the cooling systems failed in several hospitals, and emergency officials had to send fans to the patients. On the streets, homeless outreach teams handed out about 5,000 water bottles. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Fire Department ran out of ambulances to respond to medical calls and had to send for mutual aid.

This was only the third time in recorded history that temperatures reached 100 degrees on two consecutive days, according to a meteorologist who spoke at the hearing. The last time was in the 1970s, and the time before that was in 1904. The 106-degree weather Sept. 1 marked the hottest day on record in San Francisco.

“The heat on Labor Day Weekend was absolutely unprecedented,” said NWS meteorologist Brian Garcia. “Forecasting an all-time record high is next to impossible.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin looks over a report by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission regarding emergency response times during the Sept. 1 heat wave. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

While seniors and low-income residents in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, Bayview and Mission are among the most vulnerable to the heat, emergency officials issued heat advisories to the public on Twitter and a neighborhood website called Nextdoor.

“The one thing that seemed to be missing is the good ol’ radio and TV that our seniors are much more likely to see than a tweet,” Peskin said.

In response, DEM Executive Director Anne Kronenberg argued that social media is a tool to reach the media.

“I agree with you when you say that seniors probably are not on Twitter or Nextdoor,” Kronenberg said. “However, we are very aware that our colleagues in the press, traditional press, follow us on Twitter and so also get the information out that way.”

Though health officials considered opening cooling centers on the morning of Friday, Sept. 1, that did not happen until the following day as DPH instead focused its resources on the 911 system. The next weekend, when temperatures were warm but not as hot, health officials opened cooling centers.

“You went into crisis mode and [opening cooling centers] got revisited a little later than it should have,” Peskin said. “Everything we’re hearing is that … we should have done that on Thursday, and we should have done it on Friday morning, and we did it on Saturday.”

Board of Supervisors President London Breed said, “It was as if we were trying to figure it out, and then we got it right when we didn’t necessarily need it.”

“I would prefer we would get it right from the beginning,” Breed said.

Still, SFFD Chief Joanne Hayes-White said emergency officials met most of their goals for responding to medical calls on time despite fielding nearly double as many calls as the normal Labor Day Weekend.

“The heat wave had a huge impact on our call volume,” Hayes-White said. “Given nearly double the call volume, our response times were phenomenal for the weekend.”

The departments are expected to gather for an after-action meeting Sept. 29.