SF Building Trades Plan For The Next Disaster-Unions Take Lead in
By Mike Theriault
San Francisco Building and
Construction Trades Council
History of a Plan for Disaster Response
Building Trades workers and Fire Fighters know what happened, even if few
members of the general public know. As an ironworker told it to me, he was
working across the Hudson from Manhattan in New Jersey on 11 September 2001.
He and others on his job watched the towers collapse. They left the job with
their tools, made their way to the docks, hitched a ride with a willing
tugboat captain, and headed straight to Ground Zero..
[Mike Theriault] His was not the only jobsite to empty. As most New Yorkers
fled the scene of the attack, Building Trades workers headed toward it. They
knew that their skills and tools would be needed in any rescue effort after
a major structure collapse. The Fire Fighters, too, knew this and welcomed
But through no fault of their own the Building Trades workers did not arrive
in any organized way. They had to sort out chains of command and division of
tasks on the spot. Many did not know each other's moves, as members of a
crew that had trained together would. Nor did they have the advantage of
working in crews to which heavy equipment, burning rigs, and so on had been
assigned in advance. Given the thoroughness of the devastation wrought by
the day's attacks, the delays that would inevitably have resulted from this
disorganization may not have resulted in any failure to reach survivors, but
it is easy to see how in other such emergencies they could.
Another result of the disorganization was that workers arrived and worked a
long while without protective equipment. By some accounts, even when
protective equipment did come it was at first designated for "first
responders" alone and could be obtained for Building Trades workers only
through ruses. The disorganization may yet prove deadly, then, as the
effects of the smoke and dust to which they were exposed play out in the
bodies of those workers, as is apparently happening now.
After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake there was some discussion in the
general membership meetings of my own local, Iron Workers 377, on developing
a registry of skilled riggers to respond in the event of major structure
collapses such as we had seen on the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Structure.
If those discussions were conveyed to the City, it did nothing at that time.
The discussions resumed after the attacks in New York. Shortly after I took
office as Secretary-Treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction
Trades Council in April 2005 I contacted Operating Engineers Local 3, Iron
Workers Local 377, and San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798, and we began
meeting to discuss a plan for joint response in the event of a major
disaster or attack, especially involving structure collapse. We sketched out
a few features of the plan. The Fire Fighters expressed a need for expertise
in shoring buildings in danger of collapse, and so to broaden the pool of
such expertise we brought Carpenters Local 22 into the meetings, and they in
turn brought representatives from Pile Drivers Local 34.
For six weeks in the fall of 2006 an intern with the Coro Foundation Fellows
Program in Public Affairs, Sarah Ihmoud, was working with the Council. At
the same time another Coro fellow, Kathryn Bailey, was working with Fire
Fighters Local 798. We and the Fire Fighters decided to have our Coro
interns, both recent college graduates with leadership training, coordinate
another series of meetings between the Trades and the Fire Fighters to flesh
out the joint emergency response plan. Then we would have them prepare a
presentation to the City.
The plan that resulted clarified chains of command. It recommended
establishment of registries of heavy equipment and skilled workers. It
discussed certifications for those workers. It suggested staging areas and
communication methods. It spoke of pre-positioning of burning rigs and other
equipment and materials. It asked that Building Trades workers on the
registries be pre-supplied with protective equipment. It outlined how joint
Building Trades - Fire Fighters training exercises could be held. It told of
how apprenticeship curriculum could be derived from lessons learned in those
On our behalf and with representatives of all the unions involved present,
the Coro interns presented the plan in early October 2006, to the Mayor's
then-chief of staff, Steve Kawa, to Laura Phillips, the director of the
City's Department of Emergency Management, and to other City officials.
Although Mr. Kawa asked hard questions, the response was very favorable. At
Mr. Kawa's request, I met next by myself with Amy Lee and Ray Lui of the
Department of Building Inspection. Again, the response was favorable; Mr.
Lui in particular acknowledged that the plan addressed needs that he himself
had observed. Ms. Lee said that a meeting among department heads to discuss
the plan was being scheduled.
We gave a copy of the presentation to the Center to Protect Workers' Rights
of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, and they
offered to provide a "train-the-trainer" class on disaster response
Na´vely, we in the Building Trades and Firefighters believed that the City
would be so enthused by a plan that was at once so practical and addressed
such a clear need that it would announce our cooperative effort to implement
the plan 17 October, the anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. We
didn't go to the press with it ourselves because we wanted the City
administration to be able to take credit for it. 17 October approached,
came, went, and the City said nothing. The meeting between department heads
never took place. Months went by. Steve Kawa left and was replaced as
mayoral chief of staff by Phil Ginsburg. Amy Lee left and was replaced as
director of the Department of Building Inspection by Isam Hasenin.
Meanwhile in Seattle Building Trades workers had begun joint training
exercises with Fire Fighters.
Early this year I began talking about the plan to Phil Ginsburg. We arranged
a personal meeting in early April to discuss it. After I presented it to
him, he admitted that the plan made sense but pointed out that some details
might have to be changed to accord with systems already in place. I assured
him that we could be flexible, that our commitment was to produce something
that worked. He called Laura Phillips at the Department of Emergency
Management and suggested that she arrange a public announcement of our
cooperative effort on 18 April, anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire.
He also suggested that we arrange follow-up meetings to begin working on any
necessary revisions of the plan and on its implementation.
Just before 18 April, I was told that other events scheduled for that day
precluded our public announcement.
In e-mails between myself and employees of the Department of Emergency
Management in mid-April, I was told that the first two weeks of May were
"pretty free" for follow-up meetings and I was asked to provide possible
dates and times and to fax a copy of our October 2006 presentation. I
fulfilled both requests 19 April.
As I write this column, we are in the second week of May and I have received
no notification of a follow-up meeting.
Building Trades workers know that we and our predecessors have done
high-quality work in San Francisco construction. We know also, however, that
materials and processes have changed over the years. So have engineers'
understandings of the requirements of building safely in seismic areas. We
know that San Francisco is a world-famous city with world-renowned
structures, and that this makes us vulnerable to the attacks of those
seeking a perverse renown. An hourglass has been turned over. We don't know
how many grains of sand it holds or how fast they flow. We do know that when
the last grain falls, some of our good work may come down.
We have presented a plan to help in the most essential way when this
happens. Building Trades workers are ready to do their part.
Now it's the City's turn.
After City officials were provided in advance with the text of this column,
a representative of the Department of Emergency Management contacted me with
dates and times in late May and early June for follow-up meetings. I have
responded to her. We will keep our readers apprised of our progress.