Mayor orders review of S.F. protocols.
The menacing, smoky haze that drifted south from the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County and lingered in the Bay Area for nearly two weeks last month has prompted San Francisco officials to bolster the city’s ability to respond to sustained air-quality incidents, which are expected to worsen with climate change.
On Friday, Mayor London Breed handed down an executive order instructing city agencies, including the departments of Emergency Management and Public Health, to begin reviewing and revising the city’s protocols for keeping residents safe during long stretches of unhealthy or dangerous air.
“Here in San Francisco, we are used to earthquakes. We know it’s not a matter of if, but when,” Breed said Friday. But the climate change has begun to shift the city’s focus “on what we need to do to better prepare for things that we never had to prepare for in the past. These recent fires unfortunately impacted our air quality in a way that we had never experienced.”
The haze that hung over the Bay Area was an unprecedented situation, officials said. Before 2017, it was uncommon for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index to rise above 50, a level that presents little to no health risks.
During the Camp Fire, the index was at least 150 — conditions considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as people with respiratory conditions — for 13 consecutive days. In San Francisco, the index at times topped 250, a level described as “very unhealthy.” Northern California briefly earned the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the world.
Considering the deadly and record-breaking heat wave that hit in the Bay Area last year and the air event from last month, “We’re dealing with unprecedented situations due to climate change,” said Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the Department of Emergency Management.
The mayor’s executive order, she said, “is a matter of bringing us together as a city to revise what we already have planned to anticipate these new, unprecedented incidents.”
By the first quarter of 2019, Breed wants a plan with recommendations and guidelines tied to air-quality thresholds that includes advice for the public on when they should use protective masks and instructions on how the city should distribute them. The plan will also include protocols for reaching out to vulnerable populations like the homeless and the elderly.
The executive order also mandates the creation of a task force to establish “criteria, locations and measures of effectiveness for public respite facilities during poor air quality and other weather-related events.” Breed’s directive also requires Carroll and her staff to create a roster of city employees who can more rapidly deploy aid and expertise to disaster areas.
Despite the concerns around air quality in San Francisco, there was no uptick in 911 calls.
“We had no incidents whatsoever” tied to the air quality last month, Carroll said, “and that is due to people heeding the advice that they clearly heard” to take precautions and, most importantly, to stay indoors.
But Carroll added that she does see room for improvement in the way the city disseminates information about when people should wear air-filtering masks, which were nearly ubiquitous during the worst days of the air event last month.
“There is some work to do on the mask recommendations. That was one area where we received some criticism — ‘Why isn’t the city handing out a mask to every person here?’ ” Carroll said. “That’s a hard one, because you don’t want to do something irresponsibly.”
City health officials cautioned that while it seems sensible to use a mask when the air quality is poor, wearing the masks can cause excessive strain on people who have underlying heart or lung disorders.
“To wear a respirator, you have to be healthy, because it takes a lot of effort to wear them,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, the city’s health officer.
“Masks are not the solution for everyone,” Carroll said.
Jack Fatheree (left) of Texas, Nia Blas of San Francisco, and Derek Chan of Iowa wear masks as they take in a hazy view of San Francisco from Twin Peaks on Nov. 16.