San Francisco Names a Chief Resilience Officer

Posted by on Apr 11, 2014

A cistern under this San Francisco street (the outline of which is shown by the inlaid brick) provides fire-suppression functionality even if water mains are severed during an earthquake. Photo: Alex Wilson

A cistern under this San Francisco street (the outline of which is shown by the inlaid brick) provides fire-suppression functionality even if water mains are severed during an earthquake. Photo: Alex Wilson

A city known for being at the leading edge has just named a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), believed to be the first in the world. San Francisco’s hiring of Patrick Otellini, who had previously been Director of the city’s Earthquake Safety Implementation Program (and continues in that role as well), is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation, through its 100 Cities Initiative. San Francisco is kicking in its own support, however, and has funded several additional permanent staff positions; clearly, resilience is a high priority for the long term.

Patrick Otellini, San Francisco's Chief Resilience Officer. Photo: Kevin Krejci

Patrick Otellini, San Francisco’s Chief Resilience Officer. Photo: Kevin Krejci

I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago—before this announcement—but I caught up with Patrick by e-mail this week and share some of his thoughts here.

How will your role change from being the Director of Earthquake Safety?

As CRO it will be my task to be a central point of contact for all our resiliency based plans and efforts that currently live in various departments, so I will be working with several different players to develop a consistent overall resiliency strategy for San Francisco. I will continue to oversee the Earthquake Safety Implementation Program in addition to my role as CRO.

Will seismic concerns continue to dominate your agenda as CRO?

I could not be more proud of the City’s 30 year earthquake safety plan. This was developed over 10 years and involved a public advisory committee of more than 100 members of the community so it is a truly consensus based strategy with real metrics for reducing risks. More on this plan can be found online.

In what ways has San Francisco already been a leader in resilience planning?

We have been a national leader in areas relating to waste reduction, seismic safety, energy assurance planning and climate adaptation, but this work is far from done.  I hope to add value to these efforts by helping push the implementation of existing plans as well as the development of new ones.

Some of the hydrants in San Francisco are extra fat with painted caps. These are high-pressure hydrants, fed from a reservoir or one of several storage tanks and pump stations. Photo: Alex Wilson

Some of the hydrants in San Francisco are extra fat with painted caps. These are high-pressure hydrants, fed from a reservoir or one of several storage tanks and pump stations. Photo: Alex Wilson

What do you see as the top-5 resilience priorities for San Francisco today?

Retrofitting our public and private building stock; assuring the resiliency of our lifeline utilities; building the capacity necessary with communities to shift our way of thinking about these shocks and stresses to our city; adapting our aging infrastructure to be prepared for climate change, seismic activity and other factors that make it vulnerable; and working to help continue the great work San Francisco is doing to improve efficiency and access to our local and regional public transportation systems.  

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While I was in San Francisco for several conferences in March, I spent an afternoon with Mark Palmer, Senior Green Building Coordinator for the City, visiting a key resilience feature of the city: the Auxiliary Water Supply System. When the devastating 1906 San Francisco Earthquake occurred, out-of-control fires burned down much of the city, because water lines broke and fires could not be put out.

As a result, San Francisco has installed a number of redundant, emergency water systems. There are about 150 cisterns throughout the city that feed fire hydrants even if the municipal water system ceases functioning. You may notice brick circles in the city that look like they might be some sort of art installation left over from the 1960s (see photo). Instead, these circles demarcate underground cisterns that contain from 75,000 gallons to over 200,000 gallons of water.

The Twin Peaks Reservoir on a foggy day. This reservoir, divided into two sides, feeds water to high-pressure hydrants in the city to provide functionality if the municipal water system fails. Photo: Alex Wilson

The Twin Peaks Reservoir on a foggy day. This reservoir, divided into two sides, feeds water to high-pressure hydrants in the city to provide functionality if the municipal water system fails. Photo: Alex Wilson

There is a large fire-suppression reservoir high on Twin Peaks in the center of San Francisco, two above-ground storage tanks, and two salt-water pump stations that deliver water to specialized, high-pressure fire hydrants scattered throughout the City. These are the fat, white hydrants with painted caps (with different color caps indicating the water source). There are also thousands of standard hydrants that operate off San Francisco’s municipal water.

With the broadened agenda that Otellini has taken on, and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, I’m expecting to see lots of other resilience features appearing in San Francisco.

California’s robust energy code for buildings—by far the most stringent in the country—will go a long way to ensuring that buildings will maintain habitable conditions should they lose power (passive survivability). Today, that’s not too hard to do in Coastal California, even with little insulation, but as global warming advances, that region may not always provide such an idyllic climate.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

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