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Thanks for your comments on this blog entry; I enjoy and learn from the blog conversation.  The discussion on this topic exemplifies why I created my blog.  It would be easier for me to simply limit my exposure to those who criticize me by not giving them a forum such as this. But I know I make better decisions for the city when I am exposed to the fullest possible range of ideas on any topic, even those that I don’t agree with or that I find inaccurate. 

AWOL: The notion that a commissioner’s job is largely to stay inside the walls of city hall is not one that I share.  There have been a variety of accurate, thoughtful responses already blogged by others on this topic, and so I’ll add only that as city commissioner I see as my key responsibility to make good, informed decisions to help lead the entire community. To do so, it’s my obligation to get out of the building when possible and experience life as many Portlanders experience it, to see things for myself and not to overly reply on the observations of others.  As you read my update on the issue, you will see what I believe are some of the benefits of my hands-on style.

Regarding this specific incident, I am not required to go to the site of a city worker injury accident.  I choose to go to the site where a worker in my bureau portfolio requires the assistance of an ambulance, fire or police.  My policy reflects the personal concern I have for the safety of my staff and the workers in my portfolio bureaus.

Nikita: I respectfully disagree that my blog entry endangers employees, I believe just the opposite it true.

As I first blogged, there appears to be a misunderstanding by some project workers that all ‘Big Pipe’ injury incidents need to be reported as “collapses” in order to get an adequate 911 response.  This is both untrue and unwise; it does not speed help to injured tunnel workers but it does unnecessarily endanger other Portlanders. 

Apparently, this is the second time a non-tunnel collapse injury accident dealing with the Big Pipe project was characterized as a ‘tunnel collapse.’  I was told that the first reported tunnel collapse occurred when a wrench was accidentally dropped into an air shaft and struck a worker’s arm. 

On the day of this incident, Jim told me he thought use of the term ‘tunnel collapse’ was necessary to use with 911 to get the quickest city emergency response, even though it wasn’t a tunnel collapse.  For a precious 26 seconds, until the initial report was corrected, much of City’s emergency response resources were being marshaled to the scene. 

An unwarranted response of this magnitude takes emergency services away from other city needs while not quickening the response time to the tunnel.  Officials from 911 told me all reported injury incidents dealing with the Big Pipe project will get the fastest response regardless of their exact nature. 

From the information the Bureau of Environmental Services has provided me, it looks like the ‘big pipe’ project has been completed in a relatively safe manner.  Nonetheless, soon we will begin the second phase of tunneling, with a new contractor and I believe this incident offers us a learning moment. 

That’s why I gathered the leadership from the Bureau of Environmental Services, Bureau of Emergency Communications, and the Fire Department to review the situation and improve on current practices. 

After reviewing this issue over the past week, the biggest concern I have regarding safety and the Big Pipe project is that city staff, project contractors, fire, police, and 911 have never held what we call a ‘tabletop excise’ to practice responding to an actual tunnel collapse. 

Much of the big pipe is dug through loose soil and loose rock.  Materials that are under intense water pressure; a failure in the tunnel could submerge workers in dangerous muck far from the point of actual failure.  I have been told the likelihood of a catastrophic tunnel collapse is remote.  However, when I asked Fire Bureau if we were ready for a unlikely but possible tunnel flood, the answer I received is, “no.”  A table top exercise will get us better prepared.

These are some of the actions I have asked for:

• A complete review of safety tunnel safety issues;
• Clarify emergency management communications protocols;
• Increase emergency communication training of ‘big pipe’ project management staff;
• With new ‘big pipe’ contractor, prior to kicking off the next phase of the tunneling project, complete a table-top session with all emergency responders to practice responses if there was a total tunnel collapse and other likely calls for service.



Posted 7-31-05 at 8:10 pm

I am on break from my stint working as a customer service representative at the Portland International Airport.

Page_one It’s 4:36 pm, Friday, July 29th; I receive a text message page from the City’s 911 emergency call center: “CONSTRUCTION TUNNEL SHAFT COLLAPSE, WORKER TRAPPED, NAITO/MARKET...”

I immediately recognize the SW Naito/Market address as the westside site of the “big pipe” project, a portion of the $1.4 billion Combined Sewer Overflow project, designed to stop sewer from going into the Willamette River.

I say out loud, “Oh God, someone is trapped in our tunnel.”

Quick goodbyes and I run through the airport terminal to my truck parked in the short-term lot.

From the road, I cellphone the director’s office at the Bureau of Environmental Services, also known as “BES”: voicemail. I press “0” for the operator: More voicemail. I remember Dean Marriott the BES director is on vacation.

I call the Jacqueline the supervisor at the City’s 911 call center: She doesn’t have any additional information.

I call Tom, my chief of staff. He has not heard about the tunnel collapse. I ask him to try and break through BES’s voicemail. I tell him I’m driving to the site.

He calls back in 5 minutes to say he has not been able to get through either, so he is sending someone on foot over to the bureau’s office in the Portland Building.

I’m now on I-84, trying not to speed. I replay what I learned over the 11 years helping Mayor Vera Katz deal with emergencies like the earthquake of 1994, the Willamette River flooding of 1996, and the many the wind, ice and snow storms.

After the first rule of “be prepared,” I know the second rule of good emergency management is get good information as early as possible. “Where in the [expletive deleted] is mine?” I mutter.

I am now on the Morrison Bridge.

I look at my cellphone frustrated, “would someone call me back, [expletive deleted]!”

I am stuck in traffic in front of the Marriott Hotel on Naito Parkway.

I’m one city block from the tunnel site. I am stuck in traffic in front of the Marriott Hotel on Naito Parkway.

I answer my ringing cellphone to Tom’s voice. Our runner found someone at BES. Joan the assistant director of BES had called Tom. Joan says the text of the 911 page was a mistake.

I pull into the tunnel construction site area.

The site contracted supervisor Jim walks over to me and says, “Hi Commissioner.”

Relieved, I ask, “What happened?” Jim says that today as the tunneling machine broke through the last few feet, a rock bolder dislodged and rolled over a photographer’s foot. Jim tells me he was taken to Oregon Health Sciences University and should be ok.

“So, no tunnel collapse?”

“That’s right.”

"Did the 911 call center make a mistake?" "No, that is how we describe any injury accident in the tunnel."


"To make sure we get a priority response," Jim says.

I wonder what the underground equivalent to the story of Chicken Little saying the sky is falling. “What is photographer’s name?”

“I don’t know,” says Jim, “He doesn’t work for the City.”

Good: confirmation that all is ok.

Reflexively, I walk over to the edge of the shaft that leads down four stories to the tunnel.  I look over and listen. It’s dark and quiet.

Shaft I turn to Jim. “We need to improve our emergency communication and response process for this project. We more accurate information: I don't want people to get complacent with inaccurate accident reports. I want the project team in my office ASAP next week.”


I am impressed with your willinginess to pull back the curtain and show us what reaaly goes on inside city government.


Hi Sam,
Glad to hear that things were not any worse than they were and glad the guy didn't get injured to badly.


My understanding about the "big pipe" project is that it is not $1.4 billion. The whole CSO program is $1.4 (which includes the cornerstone projects, columbia slough "big pipe", west side and east side big pipes).

Just thought you might want to know that.


Good catch "screaminghouse," correction noted.



First and foremost- Thank God no one was seriously injured.

Secondly - It occured to me that if you were where most taxpayers expect you to at 4:30 in the afternoon (that would be doing your "real job" at City Hall) and not working at your airport "pretend job" you would have been able to respond to the location faster as well have access to staff, better information and communication methods.

Hindsight is 20-20, but it is something to think about. Are these field trips really the best use of your time?


Actually, there those of us in Portland that did elect Sam to know what's happening inside and out of everyone in our city (a very tall order, I know). So, when I find Sam out at the airport, I certainly don't consider it a pretend job...It's called "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" and "getting your feet wet" or "baptism by fire" (in the case of the customer service agent at the airport job!).
Sam: I hope you go back and finish your shift at the airport! Thanks.


Also, it's hardly inappropriate for Sam to be at the airport, regardless of the reason, especially since his portfolio includes the Office of Transportation. It's not like he's a first responder, anyway. And there are many things for him to do besides cloister himself inside City Hall all day. Check out his calendar.


To Mitch - PDOT does not have anything to do with the airport. Transportation in this context means roads and bike paths and streetcars and stuff, NOT airplanes.

To Sam - Did it ever occur to you that you have impaired the safety of the guys working in the tunnel by ratting them out that way? What if a guy does get trapped, now, and they do call 911 and they don't get priority service because you made them out to be chicken little - and then somebody dies? Seconds count in that kind of sitation. Just because you weren't with the program and don't trust your employees to notify you in the event of an actual emergency doesn't mean you should make a big public fuss and portray them as fools. I appreciate your desire for openness and accountability to the public but some things should be handled with discretion. Why don't you spend one of your field trip days down in the shaft instead of flipping burgers before you decide to rip on the crews that are RISKING THEIR LIVES to keep our crap flowing out of your precious City? Maybe then you'll feel more inclined to let them keep whatever oddball policies they need to keep themselves feeling safe and secure, or at least help them find a better way to do that without outing them as liars.


This is to AWOL and nikita, and anyone else to feels the need to dis on Sam. This man is fantastic at what he does. He is an excellent commissioner, and a all around great guy. If you want to turn stories upside down just so you can have a negative view on what he does, you can do that, but the truth is, Sam works extremely hard seven days a week to keep portland a beautiful, and livable city. And you should rejoice at the fact that he isn't your tipical politician who spends 5 days a week locked up in an office, meeting with business men and other politician. No, sam gets into the community and gets into the regular jobs that most people hold in our community because he wants to know everything there is to know about portland and it's people, and the best way to find out what needs fixing is to get into the action and fix it your self which is exactly what he does.

you know what, i may not know everything that goes on in a regular day at sam's office, but i do know that he is an exemplary politican and we should all be proud and happy that he has devoted himself to bettering our community.


Beau -

Being the great non-politician politico that wins the adoration and accolades of an admiring, doe-eyed public is one thing, doing an adequate job running a public works bureau or two, which is what Sam's job IS now, whether he likes it or not, is something entirely different.

I don't doubt that he understands the citizens of Portland - what makes their hearts go pitter patter and their number two pencils color in the bubble next to his name - but all that flowery poetry about keeping Portland livable with lower business taxes and neighborhood block parties does nothing to keep our sewers and streets operational amidst the growing economic crisis the City That Works is now experiencing. We'll see how livable Portland is when Powell is one giant pot hole that fills up with water every time it rains because we can't afford to clean the catch basins. (You know, those little metal grates in the ground where all the rainwater magically disappears.)

He seems like a pretty cool guy with lots of interesting, well-intentioned ideas, I just don't think he's very pragmatic or understanding when it comes to BES and PDOT and what it takes for them to get their jobs done.


nikita, this isn't a place for heated debate or arguing, i think everyone has the right to their own opinions, it's america, i happen to think that so far sam has been a terrific success as our city commissioner, if you think otherwise, thats fine. However, i do not think you should down play your fellow citizens as doe-eyed ignorants, obviously there is more to sam than just making the citizens of portland's hearts go pitter patter and pencil in the bubble next to his name, he is an excellent person and politician. Would you rather have someone in office who has never had experience working an average job in the community, or someone who sits around all day meeting with big companies trying to find out what they want done in the city, no, he listens to people like you and me and finds out what we think need fixing, and you know what, he does it.

anyway, like i said, we all have our own opinions, and im not saying one way is right or wrong, okay? thats the beauty of our society, we can all speak our minds, and say it the way we see it.

but i still think sam is more than a great guy, he is an outstanding individual, and i give him my applause, and believe me, im not some doe-eyed, simpleton, with a pitter pettery heart, getting ready to bubble in a name with my number two pencil, i can be a real (explicitive) sometimes. :)


agh! shouldn't downplay your fellow citizens! my mistake


If I understand this correctly the tunnel crew called in an accident that wasn't. If that is the case then I think there should be a penalty for doing that. Crying Wolf is never a good idea and having spent four years in the Coast Guard and going out on more than one search and rescue that should never have occurred for one reason or another this is no way to run an operation. If this is the case it is poor management. If someone had been injured going to an emergency, or killed in a vehicle accident caused when an emergency vehicle hit something then this would be all over the papers.

One another point. Commissioner what if this had been your real job and you lacked access to your own vehicle (you get paid $8 and hour and can't afford one ) and a family member called and said you were needed at home for an emergency? How would you have gotten there? And how long would it have taken you do so on our present public system?
Thank you,


Sam could take a Flexcar vehicle if he didn't have his own personal vehicle to use. See this.


Erin I am well aware of the Flexcar business, but what about the others out there that don't have a Flexcar account, or can't afford one, or can't get one? What other alternatives are there?


Michael, let's hope that the $8/hour worker has a company that supports his efforts to commute in, and also supports that worker when an emergency happens. Some employers offer their employees a free taxi ride in case of emergencies, some don't. In this case possibly another employee can drive the worker to where they need to go, and in a worse case scenario, the worker is lucky that we have as an expansive transit system that we do and the worker could probably catch a MAX, streetcar, or bus to the hospital they need to head to.

Your asked, "what if this had been your real job and you lacked access to your own vehicle (you get paid $8 and hour and can't afford one ) and a family member called and said you were needed at home for an emergency? How would you have gotten there? And how long would it have taken you do so on our present public system?"

Sam and nobody else can answer that because it isn't a city policy to get workers home in case of individual emergencies. This is a decision left up to the company that you are employed at. Some employers wont even let you leave, less you risk losing your job, in the case of emergencies.


MarkDaMan wrote:>Sam and nobody else can answer that because it isn't a city policy to get workers home in case of individual emergencies.


Laws aren't so simple to change, and business are free to participate as it is.

More regulation=more upset business owners

Sometimes we'd all like to see a policy that is generally good in principal become mainstream, such as giving employees that use transit a free ride in case of emergency, but we can't legislate that upon them less we become too overly business unfriendly. There just isn't enough public/business support for a policy like that.



I enjoy reading your blog and have a request. I am requesting that you have your employees identify themselves as your staff when posting. I find it really confusing to follow which statements reflect your policy stance and which are from the public. This openess and disclosure will go a long way to clearing this up. Thanks, Susan

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