Market Street, 1906. Image Courtesy of the Bancroft Archive.

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A class devoted almost entirely to shutting off utilities is a hard sell, and so firefighter Roger Ng is getting ready to set a skillet on fire. The class, aware that its baser instincts are being pandered to, is nonetheless palpably excited after a long night of looking at photographs of utility boxes. The back row stands up so as to see more clearly.

“Before we do the fire demo, we want you to be aware of where the exits are,” says SFPD investigator Alec Balmy. “Also: where are the fire extinguishers?”
“Right there,” someone says, pointing to fire extinguisher in the center of the table, which Balmy has recently been demonstrating the use of.

“Ignore that one,” says Balmy. “Where else?”
He adds, as an aside, “We’ve accidentally set of the alarm before. Big red trucks all over the place. Lot of explaining to do.”

Ng pours rubbing alcohol into the skillet. It busts into flame with an audible “whoosh.”

“Do I put water on this?” says Ng. “
Yes!” says the class.
“No!” says the class.
“I do not,” says Ng, “This is a class B fire, so I smother it.” He lowers a pot lid onto the skillet, extinguishing it. “Alright. Voila. Don’t try this at home.”

It’s the second session of the Mission District’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Training, and gone is the ego-stroking of Class 1. Then, the class was filled with promises of hard hats and reflective vests and moments of ordinary heroism and also the smugness of being prepared. Or at least moderately more prepared than the next guy.

Class 2 is all business. Wear eye protection while you’re doing rescue work, so that if there’s an explosion your eyes don’t fill with glass dust (“You aren’t very helpful without your eyes!” says Balmy, cheerfully). Wear latex gloves underneath your leather gloves, to protect you from rubble and bodily fluids. Pry off the lid to the gas shutoff valve out on the sidewalk with a screwdriver, or a fork. If it won’t budge, smash it.

“And when you open that lid, what will you see?” says Balmy. “Spiders. Dirt. All kinds of bad things. So before you need to go in there to find it, you’re going to clean it out.” The valve on the screen does indeed look grimy, and kind of unprofessional – like the kind that you would use to attach a garden hose. “Your valve may not look like this,” says Balmy. “It may be difficult to turn. So what do you do?”

“Spray WD-40 on it?” asks a voice from the front of the class.
Balmy winces. “Well, WD-40 is an oxidant. And you should try not to add flammable things to flammable things. Use a stick or a wrench or something as a lever.”

“But don’t just go around your neighborhood shutting off the gas willy-nilly!” says Balmy. “Who has to turn that gas back on?

“Us?” says a voice from the crowd.
“No! PG&E has to turn that gas back on. Do you know how long it took PG&E to finish turning on all the gas mains turned off during Loma Prieta?”

Everyone looks blank.

“Two months! So how can you tell gas is leaking? You can smell the Mercaptan – the additive they put in gas to make it smell bad. You can see the needles on the dials – they’ll be moving pretty darn fast. If you had you had your stove and your shower and your hot tub going at the same time those needles would still be moving slowly. If building has collapsed, then’s a good time. If you hear a whistling sound, it might not be such a bad idea. And if there’s a fire. But only if it’s safe to do so.”

“What are we concerned with?” says Balmy.
“SAFETY” booms the class, familiar with this particular call and response.
“That’s right!” Balmy says, with the practiced air of the televangelist. “We don’t want any hurt NERTS!”

Not injuring yourself is a continual theme throughout NERT training. Don’t accidentally electrocute yourself turning off the circuit breaker. Don’t store bleach next to ammonia. Don’t try to put out a fire bigger than a wastebasket, or ones that involve solvents and other hazardous chemicals. If you find a fire that’s too big to put out, get upwind from it and don’t stop until you can cover the offending fire with your thumb. “There are always going to be two of you to a NERT,” says Balmy, “so you should go by the person with the smallest hands. Because that way you’ll be farther away than if you’re going by someone’s big fat banjo thumb.”

The class looks somber, the effect only slightly mitigated by the experimental-sounding audio generated by an adorable pouchy-cheeked six-month old class attendee, who has been using the past two hours to cycle through an astonishing array of high-decibel spit noises.

Fortunately, it is time for an informational movie. “We witness acts of Hollywood bravery,” the announcer intones ponderously. His yellow argyle vest contrasts beautifully with the charred house behind him.“But Hollywood fires are an ILLUSION. Firefighters know what’s missing from a Hollywood fire. Dense smoke. Toxic gases. Uncontrollable heat. They are the product of a brutal enemy called FIRE.”

The camera cuts to a 1970s style American living room rapidly being devoured by a flaming inferno. The announcer is correct. It is nowhere near as exciting as in the movies. A dense cloud of black smoke does indeed obscure everything. In this small community room at the Valencia Gardens housing project, illusions are being shattered.

The class is instructed to go home, find their gas, electric, and water hookups. They are instructed not to accidentally shut off their gas.

“I live in an apartment building,” says a man in the crowd. “What if there’s a lock on the door to the utility closet?”

“Your landlord doesn’t have to provide you access,” says Balmy. But you can phrase it certain ways. Like ‘Do you want me to help you save your building?’

“But even if he doesn’t…Haven’t we all learned that we can break down doors in rescue missions? Forcible Entry is coming up in Class 4.”

That sounds more like it. Reinvigorated, the class disperses into the night.

Disaster Training, Part 1: What to Have on Hand

NERT Disaster Training, Part 2: Gas, Fires Rescues

NERT Disaster Training, Part 3: Triage

NERT Disaster Training, Part 4: Searches, Rescue, Axes.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. This is a great article! I took this training – one of the best things you can get for FREE from the city

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