Lawmakers, officials and members of the public called for changes Thursday to make buildings safer and fire inspections more meaningful.

Supervisor David Campos arranged for the City Hall hearing with the San Francisco Fire Department and the Department of Building Inspections in what he called “just the beginning” of an ongoing discussion about fires and building safety.  Campos listened to the data presented by the fire and building departments and probed them with questions at the meeting of the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

The hearing was called after  recent fires in the Mission have left three dead and displaced dozens of tenants.

The supervisor is also drafting legislation, in collaboration with the two departments, to give fire and building inspectors more power to enforce fire codes – for example, allowing fire department inspectors to fine landlords when an alarm system certificate is out of date, or requiring landlords to post information about how to report unsafe conditions anonymously in common areas for tenants. Campos also called for simplifying the complaint system by making 311 the main complaint point for hazard reporting and complaints.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White suggested that the fire department might improve its transparency by implementing a complaint-tracking system similar to that of the building department, and suggested that public education about fire safety in old buildings could be useful in prevention as well.

Captain Dan de Cossio of the Bureau of Fire Prevention stressed the importance of smoke alarms in individual units, an issue that was raised in part when residents of the fire at 22nd and Mission said there were no functioning smoke alarms in their units. Two-thirds of fire deaths, de Cossio said, happen in cases where residents had no smoke alarm at all, had disabled the alarm due to the nuisance of it activating unnecessarily, or had an alarm with an expired battery.

But according to current protocol, fire safety inspectors can’t make sure those are in place because they are unable to enter individual units for inspection. They focus instead on common areas.

“Our authority stops at the door of the unit,” de Cossio said.

De Cossio also suggested that the city might consider mandating that older buildings, generally required to conform to more lax codes relevant to years they were built, be retroactively brought up to code, for example by adding a sprinkler system to buildings too old to be required to have one. He also suggested yearly maintenance checks on fire escapes that include actually deploying the ladders.

Campos also asked fire officials to address the perception of a dramatic increase in the number of fires and theories that the Mission is the target of arsonists. In the past two months alone, there have been three fire fatalities in the neighborhood.

Captain John Darmanin of the Arson Task Force with the Bureau of Arson Investigation reported a decrease in fires over recent years. He also pointed out that the city occasionally experiences a rash of car or portable toilet arsons, and that these might contribute to the erroneous perception that building fires are the result of foul play.


Citywide fire statistics by year compiled as reported by Fire Department annual reports. Chart by Daniel Hirsch.

Regarding the actual cause, Darmanin said the three recent Mission fires (at 24th and Treat, Mission and 22nd, and on Mission between 22nd and 23rd in September) were still under investigation.

However, the fire at the Big House store on Mission street was so destructive that evidence of how the fire may have started was “totally consumed.” At Mission and 22nd, he said, arson was almost certainly not a factor, and though definitive evidence has yet to return from the lab, it was most likely an electrical fire. At Treat and 24th, Darmanin said it’s too early to tell.

Campos also pressed Hayes-White and another captain on why an ambulance had taken 13 minutes to arrive at the scene of the 24th and Treat street fire. Officials responded that with only 11 ambulances in the city on call at that time and 14 active calls for service, the system was experiencing a surge. The average number of daily calls is just five. The city’s emergency workers are struggling to reach a goal of 90 percent of ambulances arriving within 10 minutes, and hovers around 82 percent. Hayes-White attributed the delay partially to rapid population growth.

Tenant’s rights advocates came forward during the public comments section to express support for what some of the officials had already suggested.

“Sprinklers, sprinklers, sprinklers. We need them,” reiterated Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Commission. He also supported having a notice of violation system similar to that of DBI for fire inspectors, and ensuring that fire inspectors have enforcing power.

Leticia Arce of the tenant and immigrant rights organization Causa Justa :: Just Cause lauded the idea of making information about how to confidentially report fire hazards more readily available to tenants.

In light of recent fires, “many tenants share with me that they are worried about fire hazards in their homes,” Arce said.

Warren Mar, the Vice President of the Building Inspection Commission, took a somewhat self-deprecating perspective on how the city can improve its fire safety in buildings.

“If we did routine inspections, we would have caught a lot of these problems,” Mar said at the hearing. He also said while the supported the targeted effort to pursue negligent landlords in the Mission, the issue is not isolated and hazardous conditions exist in areas throughout the city.

Mar echoed officials and public commenters when he called for a return to a routine inspection system rather than a complaint-triggered system, and also said there was a need for an increased staff with better wages to help make inspections more effective.

After the hearing, Mar brought up the building department’s request this week to the city attorney to prosecute landlords with serious fire hazards in their buildings. Though a committee he sits on approved the action, he called it a “band-aid” approach.

“Those problems didn’t happen in six months, in two years. Where the hell were we?” Mar asked.

The building department has been open about using the two landlords in the case as a warning to other landlords who may have neglected to make important repairs. Mar said after the hearing he wants “equal enforcement” rather than a “running after” where the most recent fires have been.

“Our department has a long history of selectively doing things,” Mar said. “This is our job, people pay us taxes to do this, so we have to do it.”