Click photo to enlarge
Michael Beer, of Richmond, wears a mask during a Chevron town hall meeting at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium in Richmond, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. Monday's fire at the Chevron refinery was the second Level 3 incident in the refinery's No. 4 crude unit since 2007. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

So here we are: Another emergency situation. Another failure of Contra Costa's community warning system. Another covey of concerned officials scurrying to gather information to explain exactly why to an even larger group of angry residents. Again.

Déjà vu, anyone?

It is certainly an all-too-familiar scene to residents of Contra Costa County.

The latest transgression was the Level 3, the most dangerous, explosion and fire Monday night at the Chevron refinery in Richmond.

The blaze, which began shortly after 6 p.m. at the refinery's No. 4 diesel crude processing unit, spewed tons of pollutant-laced black smoke into the air for several hours. It sent hundreds of people to local emergency rooms complaining of difficulty breathing and other health effects.

Thankfully, no one was killed or gravely injured in the incident.

Contra Costa is home to four oil refineries, which collectively produce thousands of jobs, both directly and indirectly, not to mention a great deal of tax revenue. But, by their very nature, oil refineries also come with some inherent and significant risk. In fact, Contra Costa produces more hazardous material per capita and per square mile than any other county in the state.

It is against that landscape that the county saw the need to create a community warning system and to pass its historic industrial safety ordinance. The ordinance, which was passed 10 years ago, for the most part has been a success. The community warning system, which has been around much longer, has not.


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The system, which is funded by industry and run by the county, has either flunked or received low marks on nearly every real-life emergency it has encountered.

In each of those cases, there has been a kerfuffle, followed by an investigation, followed by a promise that things are going to be different in the future. Unfortunately, that has yet to be so. If the crowd that packed the Richmond Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday night is any indication, local residents are fed up with that, um, underperformance.

It is an ironic reminder that here in the epicenter of American computer technology -- and despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars -- we seem unable to devise and implement a computer system to effectively run our courts, our Department of Motor Vehicles or one to effectively warn the people paying for these systems of an imminent danger.

Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, who lives in Richmond, says the biggest problem is the capacity of the call system. He has asked for a full accounting from the county Office of Emergency Services.

Residents, he says, reported receiving calls during the first round of notification from 6:45 to 8:30 p.m. -- a nearly two-hour time period. That's simply unacceptable.

At the same time, we do not believe it is productive to point fingers and rave about inefficiency. Instead, we would encourage a serious community-based discussion with substantial input from industry that calmly analyzes what went wrong. For example, if the capacity is inadequate, industry must provide sufficient funding to upgrade it.

But the important thing here is that this must be a public, community-based effort that must not be delayed. The time to act is now.