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Number 553 • September 23, 2010 | Past Issues













1) The Fire Down Below: Danger Lurks in Decaying Gas Lines

In the wake of a fiery explosion that ripped through a San Bruno, Calif., subdivision, it might be natural to reassure ourselves that the incident was a shocking and tragic unlikelihood—natural, but wrong.

Experts say the Sept. 9 gas main blast that killed seven people and damaged nearly 60 homes was more than a fluke. It was an accident waiting to happen.

"In reality, there is a major pipeline incident every other day in this country," Pipeline Safety Trust Executive Director Carl Weimer told the Associated Press. "Luckily, most of them don't happen in populated areas, but you still see too many failures to think something like this wasn't going to happen sooner or later."

Unfortunately, an aging infrastructure of decaying gas lines, coupled with a booming population and lax oversight, means what happened in San Bruno could happen almost anywhere.

"If this was the FAA and air travel we were talking about, I wouldn't get on a plane," says Rick Kessler, also of the Pipeline Safety Trust, according to the AP.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the San Bruno explosion—its final report is expected late next year, according to the Los Angeles Times—there is speculation that the explosion could have resulted from one or several factors, including corrosion of the aging pipe or damage caused by nearby sewer work. The loss of life and property is thought to have been exacerbated by Pacific Gas and Electric's inability to shut off fuel to the line and population growth in the area since the pipe was installed in 1956.

"That's an issue we're going to have to look on a bigger scale—situations in which pipes of some age were put in before the dense population arrived and now the dense population is right over the pipe," NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart told the AP.

Of the roughly 300,000 miles of gas transmission lines in United States, only 7 percent are highly populated, or what the gas industry terms “high consequence,” according to the AP article.

Still, those lines are part of a nationwide web of roughly 2 million miles of gas and oil pipeline, some as which are many as 120 years old. Although, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is responsible for regulating the repair and upkeep of the lines, the inspector to pipe ratio is overwhelming, Weimer told the AP.

"When you look at two-and-a-half million miles of pipeline with 100 inspectors, it's not reassuring," he said. "To a grand degree the industry inspects and polices themselves."

That method doesn’t always work. According to the article, there have been “2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents since 1990, more than a third causing deaths and significant injuries.”

Even though the gas industry says it spends millions testing and replacing infrastructure, there are problems prioritizing replacement with such vast needs. In the case of the San Bruno explosion, a nearby section of pipe was identified as an “unacceptably high” risk in 2009, but the $5 million in PG&E ratepayer money approved to replace it was allocated to more pressing issues, according to another Los Angeles Times article.

"We constantly monitor our system and if at any time we identify a threat to public safety we act to repair it," PG&E Spokesman Andrew Souvall told the Times. "We always take a proactive approach toward the maintenance of the lines."

Even so, another PG&E spokesperson said that about a quarter—1,021 miles—of the company’s high consequence gas lines hadn’t been inspected yet. And in cases such as the San Bruno pipe, technology used to inspect for leaks can’t be employed because of outdated configurations.

The accident has set off a flurry of investigations and legislation aimed both directly at PG&E and at industry-wide safety. In addition to a mandate from the California Public Utilities Commission that PG&E examine its system statewide, there have been calls for federal examination of the lines, requirements for shut off valves, and increased fines for safety violators. California Senator Alex Padilla said the state needed to ramp up regulation and enforcement, according to the Times.

"This horrible accident is a wake-up call that California needs to do more to protect the public and meet the highest safety standards," he said.

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2) Firefighters at Your Fingertips: Is Mixing Public and Private Responders a Good Idea?

It almost sounds like something out of a Hollywood plotline—as the hills above Boulder blaze, an unknown team of elite firefighters quietly breaches the evacuation area to save the homes of their super wealthy clients. Their work done, they disband with no one being the wiser.

The actual deployment of the 13 wildland firefighters, hired by Chubb Insurance to protect the homes of select clients from Boulder’s Fourmile Fire, was probably less dramatic. It did, however, have the distinction of being Colorado’s first fire to mingle public responders with those employed by an insurance company, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.

Along with that distinction comes the question of whether such a mix is the cutting edge of risk management or a just asking for trouble.

"Wow, I'm impressed," Gold Hill resident and fire victim Greg Cortopassi told the Camera. "I think it's an incredibly active stance. This is something that I'd like to see the other companies moving forward with."

But he added that private firefighters would need to steer clear of those whose job was to stop the blaze, regardless of whose home was burning. "You can get in the way and not actually do anything helpful," he said.

Concerns about private protection getting in the way of public good has been cropping up for the last few years, ever since a handful of insurers such as AIG, the Fireman’s Fund, and Chubb started contracting private firefighters to look after assets.

“Insurance company fire engines need to stay out of our way,” Thom Walsh of the U.S. Forest Service told the Associated Press in 2008. “We don't know who they are or where they are. They're like the private mercenaries in Iraq.”

In the Fourmile Fire, that wasn’t the case. The Chubb firefighters had a prior agreement with Boulder County that allowed them to work in the fire zone to prevent clients' homes from catching fire through fuel mitigation and other "pre-suppression" activities, according to the Camera article. They weren’t allowed to fight structural fires and weren’t considered first responders, but they took their orders from incident command like others on the scene.

“We don't do anything without approval from incident command,” Chubb spokesman Dave Hilgen told the Camera. “We don't move.”

Even when responders aren’t worried about stepping on each other’s toes, there could still be drawbacks to bringing private-sector resources into a field served largely by the public, according to an op-ed in the Boston Globe.

“An increasing role for private firms in basic safety services such as fire and police protection prompts concern over training procedures, reliability, and accountability,” writes author Peter Funt. “Moreover, privatization can lead to a spiral in which reduced public services cause increased private involvement, which, in turn, leads to even more cuts in public funding.”

Be that as it may, the insurance privatization trend—which ironically hearkens back to the earliest U.S. firefighting groups—is expected to grow, according to Carole Walker of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

“As the wildfire threat has grown across the country, you're seeing these types of added protections crop up,” she told the Camera. “It's another example of what insurance companies are doing to market themselves in a competitive marketplace.”

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3) Zoned In: Those Surprised by Flood Risk Status Catch a Break on Insurance

Recent changes to Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs), which the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been implementing on a rolling basis, have surprised and sometimes angered residents who suddenly discover they're living in a floodplain. 

The FIRM revisions—which are the result of updates made to decades-old maps using the latest technology—often mean that homeowners are unexpectedly required to purchase flood insurance. That could the cost anywhere from $120 to $3,500 per year depending on the amount of insurance purchased and the home’s flood risk.  Beginning in January 2011, though, residents that find themselves mapped into a Special Flood Hazard Area—an area with a one percent or greater annual risk of flood—can find temporary relief in the form of a Preferred Risk Policy.

Preferred Risk Policies will allow homes included in a map revision after October 1, 2008, to purchase insurance at a reduced price for up to two years. That will mean savings of more than $1,000 a year in some cases, according to a FEMA fact sheet. After the two-year period, property owners would begin paying standard rates, unless an extension is negotiated.

Homeowners who might qualify for the program will start being notified next month. More information for insurance agents and homeowners is available at

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4) DHS Decision Making: Good in Disaster, Terrorism Not So Much

A just released National Research Council report found that Department of Homeland Security methods for determining terrorism risk aren’t adequate for reliable decision making.

According to The Review of the Department of Homeland Security’s Approach to Risk Analysis, the department needs to develop an “understanding of the uncertainties in its terrorism-related risk analyses” and “strengthen its scientific practices, such as documentation, validation and peer review” by external experts. Taking such steps would also increase transparency, the report stated.

The 14-member review committee evaluated the quality of agency risk estimation methods and the ability of the methods to accurately represent risk and support decision making in the areas of terrorism and natural disasters. No problems were found with the department’s analysis in disaster situations.

“However, with the exception of risk analysis for natural disaster preparedness, the committee did not find any DHS risk analysis capabilities and methods that are yet adequate for supporting DHS decision making, because their validity and reliability are untested,” the report states. “Moreover, it is not yet clear that DHS is on a trajectory for development of methods and capability that is sufficient to ensure reliable risk analyses other than for natural disasters.”

Among the recommendations made by the committee are the formation of a well-funded research program to address the social and economic impacts of disaster, alternatives to current fixed-probability modeling, documented and repeatable analyses for infrastructure protection, and discontinuing the practice of integrating risk assessment across the entire range of DHS functions.

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5) Call Outs: Calls for Papers, Abstracts, Proposals, and More

Call for Applications
East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes
National Science Foundation
Deadline: November 10, 2010
The National Science Foundation is accepting applications for students interested in attending one of seven East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes from June to August 2011. Awardees will receive a $5,000 stipend, airfare to the host country, living expenses, and other support. Masters and PhD students studying in a variety of fields, including the social sciences, environmental science, geoscience, and engineering, are invited to apply.


Call for Presentations
Partners in Emergency Preparedness Conference
Washington State University
Deadline: November 10, 2010
The Partners in Emergency Preparedness conference is now soliciting proposals for presentations at its upcoming event, to be held April 26-27 in Tacoma, Washington. The 75-minute presentations should focus on lessons learned, best practices, participant interaction, and creating emergency management partnerships. A full list of topics and online submission instructions are available at the conference Web site.


Call for Papers
International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management
Deadline: November 15, 2010, (Full Papers) and December 15, 2010 (Works-in-Progress)

The International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management is accepting full research papers, works-in-progress, and practitioner papers for presentation at ISCRAM 2011, May 8-11 in Lisbon, Portugal. Papers on a number of topics will be accepted, including early warning and alert systems, risk perception and analysis, social media, GIS and crisis management, and humanitarian action.

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6) Some New Web Resources

[Below are some new or updated Internet resources we have discovered. For an extensive list of useful Web sites dealing with hazards, see]

FEMA Public-Private Partnerships
No man is an island and neither is the Federal Emergency Management Agency—which is why FEMA has launched a new Web site to encourage private businesses to work with the agency in providing a port in the storm. The public-private partnerships site shares examples of partnerships from around the United States that help the government leverage the private sector to get supplies and services to those in need.


Assessment of Intraseasonal to Interannual Climate Prediction and Predictability
Whether you’re a weather junkie or you just need to know if you should wear a sweater to work, forecasts can be invaluable. But for those who need to keep an eye on the weather over the course of weeks and years, accuracy can be an issue. This report by the National Academies takes a look at what needs to be done to improve the accuracy of these types of forecasts, as well as how methods for making and communicating forecasts can be more accessible.


Colorado's Flood Decision Support System
This new Colorado Water Conservation Board map site was developed for use by developers, floodplain managers, emergency managers, the media, and the public. Users can display map data layers that include floodplain boundaries, historical floods, multi-hazard assessment, community information, and real-time weather and flood outlook. For those unhappy with the outlook, a weather modification map viewer is also available. Community officials may request access to additional map layers, such as those related to dam safety, by emailing Carolyn Fritz.


Geeks Without Borders
Geeks are in line to be the latest humanitarians to shed boundaries for the good of communities in need. Set to launch Oct. 10, GWOB will “assist people whose survival is threatened by lack of access to technology or communications due to violence, neglect, or catastrophe.” Using a three-pronged approach that includes a communication hub, crowd sourcing, and problem solving, the group plans to kick off its geeky aid campaign with a 24-hour hackathon devoted to developing applications for those in need.


Pipeline Emergencies
After the recent San Bruno explosion of a gas transmission line, its good to know that there’s a site out there dedicated to “zero pipeline incidents.” Although that goal is blown, there’s plenty on the site to keep responders in the know about how to address such incidents. With textbooks, an instructor program, scenario-based exercises, and lots of online training opportunities, Pipeline Emergencies provides safety training and a place to exchange ideas with others.


NIST Wildland-Urban Interface and Wildland Fires
It may not be pretty, but this functional page created by the National Institute of Standards and Technology gives handy access to NIST work in the area of the wildland-urban interface and wildland fires. Included in the offerings are media stories, field studies, laboratory work, fire modeling, and statistics. Postdoctoral opportunities are also listed.


Coastal Climate Adaptation
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Services Center has put together an extensive collection of resources for anyone interested in climate change adaptation in coastal states. Visitors will find adaptation plans, case studies, policies and legislation, and outreach and training materials among the many offerings arranged by type or by state. A forum and calendar of events is also provided.

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7) Conferences, Training, and Events

[Below are some recent announcements received by the Natural Hazards Center. For a comprehensive list of upcoming hazards-related meetings, visit our Web site at]

October 3-6, 2010
Workshop on Electromagnetic Signals Associated with Earthquakes and Volcanoes
International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
Orange, California
Cost and Registration: $350, open until filled
This workshop will discuss issues related to electromagnetic studies of earthquakes and volcanoes. Session topics include electromagnetic research on earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic landslides, and geothermal activities; techniques for correcting electromagnetic data; and research from San Andreas Fault studies.


October 6-8, 2010
Federal Alliance for Safe Homes 2010 Annual Meeting
Federal Alliance for Safe Homes
Orlando, Florida
Cost and Registration: $200, open until filled
This conference will discuss best practices and technology emphasizing this year’s theme “where safety and sustainability meet.” Conference topics include severe weather education, green building and disaster safety, and the incorporation of mitigation, weatherization, and water conservation.


October 17-21, 2010
National Emergency Management Association 2010 Annual Conference
National Emergency Management Association
Little Rock, Arkansas
Cost and Registration: $750, open until filled
This conference will addresses emergency management challenges and share NEMA’s views on all-hazards emergency preparedness. Session topics include military support to civil authorities and lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Tennessee floods.


October 18-19, 2010
2010 Business Survival and Recovery Conference
Contingency Planners of Ohio
Dublin, Ohio
Cost and Registration: Not posted
This conference will share expertise, education, and experiences to improve preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery of businesses from disasters and emergencies. Conference topics include disaster response, resiliency analysis, critical infrastructure sector plans, and data center recovery.


October 25-29, 2010
Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference
International Association of Wildland Fire
Spokane, Washington
Cost and Registration: $325, open until filled
This conference will examine wildland fire knowledge and how communities understand wildland fire on a regional, national, and international scale. Conference topics include fire weather, ecology, and history; post-fire effects; and wildland fire case studies.


November 8-10, 2010
Climate Adaptation in the Nordic Countries
Nordic Climate Change Adaptation Research Network
Stockholm, Sweden
Cost and Registration: $338 before September 30, open until filled
This conference will explore the links between climate adaptation, science, practice, and policy in Nordic Countries. Topics include adaptation research theory and methodology, vulnerability indicators, the role of state and non-state actors, and the links between climate adaptation and mitigation.

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8) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

[The following job postings provided an overview of some selected openings in hazards-related fields. For more information on a particular job, please follow the links provided.]

Emergency Planning and Preparedness Manager
Babson College
Babson Park, Massachusetts
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position manages the college's emergency preparedness and response plans, provides training to first response staff, maintains crisis protocols, and develops preparedness and response education. A bachelor’s degree in a related field and three years of experience in critical incident planning, risk management, emergency management and preparedness, or business continuity are required.

Atlanta, Georgia
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position models flood zones, assists in creating flood hazard maps, reviews the accuracy of flood hazard maps and reports, and helps compile floodplain data. A bachelor’s degree in geography or GIS, three years experience in physical science or a related field, and GIS project experience are required.


Director of Emergency Preparedness
Miami Dade College
Miami, Florida
Salary: $75,606 to $113,409
Closing Date: October 4, 2010
This position manages all emergency management and business continuity plans, conducts vulnerability assessments, implements training, serves the response team during emergencies, and represents the college on the Florida Regional Domestic Security Task Force. A master's degree in a related field; five years in development, non-profit marketing, or related work; and knowledge of the National Incident Management System and emergency preparedness protocols are required.


Post Graduate Scientist
University Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colorado
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: October 8, 2010
This position conducts research on the socioeconomic aspects of weather, the value of weather forecasts and warnings, and other weather-related projects. A PhD in social science, geography, or a related field; expertise in conducting qualitative or quantitative research; and a well-developed knowledge of interdisciplinary research methods are required.


Environmental Health Coordinator
International Rescue Committee
Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position assists in developing response strategies, performs emergency response training, conducts rapid and ongoing needs assessments to create response plans, and designs water and sanitation infrastructure. A bachelor’s degree in civil engineering or a water-related field, three years in environmental health, and strong technical skills are required.


Tetra Tech
Rancho Cordova, California
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position supports and sometimes leads emergency planning, training, and exercises for government and private sector projects. A bachelor’s degree in engineering or science, seven years emergency management or planning experience, and emergency management policy and regulation expertise are required.

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Contributions of jobs, conferences, and other content to this newsletter can be sent to Please include “for Disaster Research” in the subject line.

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