SF Emergency Services Caught Off Guard By Record Heat

The severity of the weekend heat wave caught San Francisco emergency crews off guard, and officials were forced to make a rare call out for mutual aid, NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit has learned.

San Francisco's 911 received roughly double the number of calls for help it normally does, officials said. And in a rare move Saturday, the unit had to ask for assistance from other public and private ambulance services outside the city, activating its "mutual aid" system.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said the city simply did not sufficiently prepare for the surge of calls to take heat victims to local hospitals.

"San Francisco's emergency management apparatus was caught flatfooted," Peskin said. "They had clear warnings the day before, all through the day. They did not activate the emergency operations center until 6 o'clock on Friday night. It's quite alarming; it's cause for concern."

Hospitals in the city were inundated with heat-related emergencies as the high temperature hit a record 106 degrees on Friday and 102 Saturday.

San Francisco fire officials declined to comment, but the public health department said in a statement the call for mutual aid Friday followed what she called an "orderly process."

"Our emergency response system was proactive in monitoring call volumes and took immediate steps to respond as those volumes rose," public health spokeswoman Rachael Kagan said.

Fortunately, other Bay Area counties had planned ahead and were able to pitch in and bail out San Francisco.

San Mateo County's head of emergency medical services, Nancy Lapolla, said her agency had eight extra ambulances on top of its normal complement of 16, including two sent from Yolo County, where more people are better equipped with air conditioning to deal with the heat.

Lapolla said her area was so prepared that it had resources to spare, even as it handled 100 more calls during the heatwave.

"In fact, at one point in time, the system calmed down, so they were able to relieve that unit to go to San Francisco," Lapolla said.

Kelly Coleman, coordinator for the region's emergency medical services agency, said San Francisco was the only jurisdiction to call mutual aid across the 16-county area he oversees. Coleman sent the city two strike teams, a total of 10 ambulances, including a team from Solano County.

"We ended up sending a whole bunch of ambulances to San Francisco because their system was just surging way, way, way above normal," Coleman said.

The system worked just as it should, Coleman said. But Peskin wants to hold a hearing about the city's response.

"In a city that is earthquake prone, that has tsunami warnings, the fact that we were not ready is quite alarming," he said. "I'm going to hold hearings on it and make sure this never happens again." 

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