San Francisco firefighters call for better rescue equipment

Firefighters in San Francisco say their emergency equipment designed to save lives is not "cutting" it out in the field and their current administration could have prevented the problem.

Several members of the department say the "Jaws of Life" failed at the tour bus crash on Union Square and now firefighters want Chief Joanne Hayes White and Mayor Ed Lee to take action.

According to San Francisco Fire Department documents obtained by KTVU, the cutters from three different trucks froze up during the Union Square bus crash November 13th.

"We've been aware that these tools are becoming outdated for a good ten years," said SFFD Assistant Chief Bob Postel, who was the incident commander at the crash.  

Postel says the cutters failed, so crews improvised. They used different saws to extricate seven people who were trapped, including a 15-year-old girl pinned underneath the double decker tour bus.

"One of the tools we had to use was a multi-purpose saw, which is a large chainsaw with a rotary blade on it. That throws a ton of sparks, creates a huge fire explosion hazard. We had to go cut the roof off one car using that saw," explained Postel.

He said he was also concerned about the live Muni wires, snagged by the bus, dangling overhead.

"We were lucky and that's all we've been: lucky," said one member of the SFFD who wanted his identity concealed for fear of retaliation. He says the cutters aren't faulty; they simply can't cut through most vehicle metals these days.

According to the fire protection research foundation, in 2007 the auto industry tripled the percentage of high grade steel to 12 percent in cars to better protect passengers involved in accidents. Nowadays cars contain anywhere from 33 to more than 80 percent high-grade steel. What it means is that -- quite literally -- Jaws of Life made before 2007 aren't cutting it.

"I don't want to be that guy that some kid dies at an event and what am I supposed to tell them? 'Oh, I'm sorry, I wish we could have helped you, but your car was built after 2007, '" said the anonymous firefighter.

Jaws of Life are designed to cut through metal to save people trapped in cars or inside collapsed buildings. One set of jaws contains a cutter, spreader and ram.

Cutters slice through metal or things like car roofs. A spreader opens doors so emergency crews can gain access. A ram can move a steering column, slide a car seat backwards or pry pedals off trapped feet.

According to SFFD, there are 22 sets of jaws, the bulk purchased in the early 90s. The oldest was bought in 1988 and serves the station on Treasure Island, which handles eastbound accidents on the Bay Bridge.

The newest set was bought in 2003. The Presidio station has a pair from 2011 but those were bought by the federal government.

"We have hoses we have to put out fires. Those happen every day. We're talking about a tool that according to the rescue captain happens about once every two months," said Assistant Deputy Chief Ken Lombardi.

Lombardi says the tools are expensive at about $25,000 a set. The department was recently denied grant money. When KTVU asked why there wasn't better planning in the budget, Lombardi responded, "To say the planning wasn't in place I think is inaccurate and I don't think that's a fair statement. Like I said, there's many tools that the fire department uses and I think to say one tool is more important than another tool, I don't think that's a fair statement."

"We send a rescue squad to every accident with somebody trapped. They're doing these extrications several times a month and the cost is minimal," said Assistant Chief Postel. "I think it's about $25-30,000 for a set of these tools and in a city with a nearly $9 billion budget, I think that money is available somewhere."

KTVU caught up with Mayor Ed Lee to ask him about the situation.

"If they don't have the right equipment, I'll make sure that they get it. We just haven't been informed from the Fire Chief as to whether that equipment was substandard or not," replied Mayor Lee.

KTVU uncovered emails showing the problem was documented to the administration in 2011. KTVU also conducted a survey of various Bay Area fire departments and several have Jaws of Life purchased after 2007.

Alameda County has 16 sets, Oakland has 7 new jaws and 5 new extraction tools, San Jose has 10 jaws and Contra Costa County Fire has eight jaws.

SFFD is slated to receive two brand new heavy-duty trucks equipped with updated jaws, but that won't arrive until 2017. The department will receive a $26,000 grant next month, but that will only pay for a portion of the jaws set. It could be weeks before it hits the streets.

"When we're talking about essential equipment, I think we ought not to rely on just grants," said Mayor Lee.

The SFFD member who wished to remain anonymous said, "I know any firefighters anywhere in the United States would be incensed that the administration hadn't gone through and made the changes that were necessary to help us, help everybody in the city. Once again, we'll be rolling the dice on somebody's life."

On the afternoon of Tuesday, November 24th, Lombardi called KTVU to announce that a pilot program is being launched. He said that one set of Jaws of Life from Hurst brand tools were delivered to one of the rescue squads and another set from Holmatro was to be delivered the following day.

The trial will allow the SFFD to test out the different brands for 6 months. It's a plan that had been in the works since the spring. A Hurst representative told KTVU that the equipment was ordered in June and was ready to be delivered in August.

The Hurst official said that the tools sat on a shelf and the pilot was delayed because he was told that the SFFD "got busy" with Urban Shield, Fleet Week and other events. Top officials in the SFFD tell KTVU it's just a band-aid solution because at the end of the trial, there are no funds set aside to purchase the equipment.

Still, Assistant Deputy Chief Lombardi says the newer technology wouldn't have changed the outcome on Union Square.

"I know there were four critical patients at the scene and they were all transported in under 30 minutes, that's a fact," Lombardi said.

But according to dispatch reports, the first unit arrived on scene at 2:57 pm November 13th. The critical patients, the ones who needed to be extricated, weren't transported until 42 to 45 minutes later.

SFFD sources also provided a document which showed that on October 17, 2015, it took crews an hour and a half to extricate a man trapped inside a vehicle crashed on the 3800 block of Mission. Postel says that time is unacceptable.

Crews resorted to using a small die grinder with a metal cutting blade. That, according to the document, was "not ideal due to the noise and sparks created." The last line of the memo reads, "I recommend that we immediately upgrade our auto extrication tools, at least on the Rescue Squads, to meet the current auto extrication standards in the United States."

"They knew that we had huge shortcomings," said the unidentified SFFD member. "It's ridiculous!"

Postel agreed.

"We are a world class city. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case that the fire department doesn't get funding for things -- be it ambulances, personnel or facilities -- until something happens that brings it to the forefront; makes it to the news and then we seem to get funding for those things," Postel said.

A partial list of cars that contain more than 80 percent high-grade steel includes the new Ford F-150, the Chevy Volt and most hybrids, Range Rover, Subaru, Volvo and Mercedes.