Tom Butt
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  Timelines on Fire Response Don't Jibe
February 5, 2018

Both Richmond Fire Department and Contra Costa Health Services have now released their respective timelines for activities related to the Sims Metal fire of January 30. There may be an explanation, but what is remarkable are the discrepancies between the two timelines during the first hour or so of the fire.

Richmond Fire Department (RFD) dispatch (Richmond Communications Center - RCC) received the first call at 5:08 PM, and the RFD incident commander requested a shelter in place at 5:22 PM. The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office notified the Community Warning System (CWS) of the need for shelter in place at 5:27 PM.

Neither timeline indicates when the first public alerts were actually issued, but the Sheriff’s Office claims it was 6:08 PM. According to the Contra Costa Health Services Timeline:

Sheriff's officials said operators of the warning system received all the necessary information to issue an alert at 5:55 p.m. and there was no request to activate the sirens. The first alert was sent at 6:08 p.m. through the Telephone Emergency Notification System, which includes phone, text and email alerts.

I know that I received my first call on my cell phone at 6:11 PM, over an hour after the fire was first reported, and another one at 6:20 PM. If, as the Richmond timeline notes, the request for shelter in place by the incident commander went out at 5:25 PM, that’s a 43-minutre delay before it was broadcast by the Community Warning System.

Below is a composite of the City of Richmond Timeline and the Contra Costa Health Services Timeline. Note that there is nothing on the Contra Costa Health Services Timeline until 40 minute after the fire was reported.


City of Richmond Timeline

Contra Costa Health Services Timeline


Richmond Communications Center (RCC) receives call for large scrap metal fire at Sims Metal



Request a command channel (RMD2)



B4 arrived on scene and established Cutting Command



IC (Incident Commander) issues initial size up, “Tall scrap pile on fire.” Will be an extended operation.



IC issues shelter-in-place through RCC (Marina Way to Wright to Ohio to Harbour Way)



IC request for County HazMat about “Air Quality and Shelter-in-Place.”



Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) Notifying Community Earning System (CWS) for shelter-in-place



6101 notified and is out of the area



City Manager’s Office request fenceline air capture and monitoring




Large industrial fire at Sims Metal in Richmond – 600 S. 4th St., Richmond, Site ID 77174, RFD requested air monitoring


Large line water supply established, fire attack started



Request foam vehicle from Chevron Fire



Delayed by train (unknown unit)




Open BOC (Branch Operations Center)


BC (Battalion Chief)at Chevron Fire, Adv. they are working to secure their foam inventory issues



Tricia from County HazMat ER to Sims …925-588-6569



Ovidia from CAN Alert (CWS) 925-588-3107, Call her when shelter in place is lifted




Shelter in place – Ohio to Wright Avenue


Per Cutting IC – due to significant win change, shelter in place has been canceled and moved to Santa Fe, Iron Triangle, Atchison and North Richmond



Per Cutting IC – Shell Oil sending 1 foam engine



Shelter in place updated to include Santa Fe, Atchison Village, Iron Triangle and North Richmond




Request air monitoring groups to Santa Fe, Atchison Village and west portion of the Iron Triangle to the Richmond Parkway

One thing that seems obvious to me is that the system has too many moving parts. The CWS website states:

The Contra Costa County Community Warning System (CWS) is recognized as one of the nation’s most modern and effective all-hazard public warning systems. The CWS is a partnership of the Office of the Sheriff, the Health Services Department, other government agencies, industry, news media and the non-profit Community Awareness & Emergency Response (CAER) organization, all striving to deliver time-sensitive and potentially life-saving information to the people of Contra Costa County. (

That’s just too many players. They didn’t even mention the local fire departments, dispatch centers and actual sources of the fires, such as Sims Metals. Whoever dreamed up this hairball had a penchant for the complicated, and it has showed over the years, with not a single successful performance to its credit.

One of the problems is that the Community Warning System has been accepted as a substitute for safe operation. The Chevron fire of 2012 is a good example. What we need to do is focus more on inherently safer design and operation of industrial facilities instead of relying on a flawed warning system and shelter in place when something blows up.

“An inherently safer design is one that avoids hazards instead of controlling them, particularly by reducing the amount of hazardous material and the number of hazardous operations in the plant.”

The Contra Costa Health Services has not released, and the media has not published, the results of air quality testing during the fire. At first they had trouble getting their meters to work. At 7:31 PM, no measurements had been reported, but Contra Costa Health Services reported, “BAAQMD is on scene, trying to get particulate meters to work.”

Based on the Contra Costa Health Services Timeline, at 8:20 PM, the BAAQMD measured 559 µg/m3, at Macdonald and Richmond Parkway, which is way above the “hazardous” level (  At 9:18, it  was 500-600 µg/m3 at Mills and Castro. At 1:10 am, it was 230 µg/m3 at Hoffman and Cutting.

To further complicate matters, at 6:03 PM, Richmond firefighters were delayed by a train!

I’m not looking to lay blame on anyone but simply to point out what I have always maintained – that the system does not work.

Below is the press release from Contra Costa Health Services, which has no useful information about the measured toxicity of the smoke:

MEDIA CONTACT: Vicky Balladares, 925-383-9367

Air Samples from Sims Metal Fire Released

Air sampling done during the Sims Metal fire in Richmond earlier this week show elevated levels of potentially harmful chemicals and smoke particulates in the area.

Air samples taken by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District at Sims in close proximity to the fire found a high presence of benzene, a known carcinogen. While long-term exposure to benzene can cause cancer, the health impacts of short-term exposure to the levels found during the fire are not known, said CCHS Environmental Health Director Dr. Marilyn Underwood.

Both the air district and CCHS’ Hazardous Materials Response Team measured high particulate readings throughout the night. Smoke particulates can irritate the throat, lungs and eyes, particularly in those with pre-existing lung disease, such as asthma. Very fine particulates can get into the blood stream.

“All smoke is toxic and all smoke contains particulate matter. Anytime we see smoke we should take precautions in order to minimize exposure,” said Dr. David Goldstein, CCHS Deputy Health Officer.

Existing community monitors in North Richmond, Atchison Village, and Point Richmond and fenceline monitors at the Chevron Refinery were also analyzed.  Elevated particulate and benzene readings were found by the Point Richmond community air monitor. There were no other elevated readings of any other chemicals that were analyzed or particulates on any of the other monitors.

Dr. Goldstein said we don’t know what the long term health impacts from the fire will be. What we do know, he said, is people with preexisting respiratory conditions such as asthma may have experienced some symptoms of wheezing and shortness of breath.

If people have concerns about the impact the smoke may have had on their health, they should contact their healthcare provider, Dr. Goldstein recommended.

The fire at Sims Metal Management, located at 600 S. 4th Street in Richmond, started on Tuesday, January 30 around 5 p.m. The Richmond Fire Department ordered residents in surrounding neighborhoods to shelter-in-place because of the heavy smoke from the fire. The shelter-in-place order was lifted the following morning around 4 a.m.

Below is an article from KQED  -

Richmond Launches Review of Metal Yard That Went Up in Flames
A plume of smoke rises from Sims Metal Management in Richmond. (Bay Area Air Quality Management District)
By Ted Goldberg February 5, 2018

Richmond city officials have begun to scrutinize the Sims Metal Management facility, where a smoky fire forced thousands of residents to stay indoors last week.

The city’s Planning and Building Department will review whether Sims is complying with rules governing its work near the Port of Richmond, according to Richard Mitchell, the department’s director.

“Staff is in the process of assembling information related to the recycling facility to determine if the operation is in compliance with the original conditions of approval,” Mitchell said in an email Monday.

The planning department’s review of Sims’ conditional use permit was prompted by a request from Richmond Mayor Tom Butt

“Sims has a sordid history,” Butt said, referring to the company’s Redwood City facility burned by fires several years ago. “I want to reopen all of this and look into it.”

The company has apologized for the fire and pledged to consider making safety changes at its Richmond location, which reopened on Thursday.

“We will look at any improvements to reduce the risk of fires at this facility, including a focus on stockpile size, improving fire breaks, and the use of technology to monitor stockpiles,” said Sims spokeswoman Jill Rodby.

“We will continue to be a valuable member of the community, and we will maintain our rigorous standards,” Rodby said.

The fire raises questions about how Richmond should regulate land used by industry so close to residential neighborhoods, said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who has been involved in the county’s oversight of Richmond’s Chevron refinery.

Sims’ South Fourth Street facility is near several locations that were under the county’s shelter-in-place orders.

“We want all operators at the port to be acting responsibly, but is this the right use to have at that location?” Gioia asked.

Word of the Richmond Planning Department’s review comes several days after Contra Costa County health officials revealed that air samples taken during the fire, which took place for at least 11 hours between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, showed high levels of the carcinogen benzene near the blaze.

Long-term exposure to benzene can cause cancer. But county health officials emphasized that the health impacts of short-term exposure that were detected Tuesday night are not known.

The data came from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which is investigating whether the smoke violated any local air rules.

The last time the facility violated hazardous materials regulations was in October 2012, according to Contra Costa County inspection reports obtained by KQED.

They included hazardous waste material containers that were mislabeled and not always closed, an undercharged fire extinguisher and bins blocking the facility’s aisles. The four violations discovered in that inspection were all corrected.

The county’s hazardous materials program found no violations during a subsequent inspection in late 2014. The agency plans to conduct a new inspection of Sims in the next month or so, according to Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa’s chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer.

The last fire inspection of the facility came in 2015, and it found no violations, according to Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard. Richmond fire investigators have yet to reveal a cause of the blaze.

Sims, in the meantime, is inviting members of the public to a town hall meeting Wednesday night to discuss the fire and the facility.
That meeting is scheduled to take place at Nevin Community Center between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.