San Francisco’s Civil Grand Jury, a volunteer citizen oversight body, issued a report Thursday that found the Department of Building Inspections and Fire Department sometimes take too long to correct fire safety code violations.
According to the Civil Grand Jury, a body of 19 volunteers who serve for a year before a new body is selected, buildings go uninspected for longer than city code requires and fire hazards persist because of inefficiencies in the two departments’ protocols.
The report, prompted by a string of destructive Mission District fires, repeatedly faults DBI’s records system for creating extra work for inspectors because it lacks some basic functions and is not as accessible to inspectors as it could be – for example, the report says inspectors have to go to information systems staff for some data on buildings, can’t add inspection reports to the system from the field, and may not be able to easily access lists of buildings that are due for inspection or how much time has elapsed since the last inspection.
Coupled with a few other factors, like building inspectors’ discretion over whether or not to move toward enforcement in a case, that leads to delays in getting violations abated, the report indicates. Alison Ileen Scott, the jury’s Foreperson Pro Tem, said that unabated violations like fire escapes not extending or fire alarm systems not working (both of which were problems after the devastating fire at Mission and 22nd streets) can be very dangerous if a fire does occur.
“We’re trying to safeguard against those things happening, and the sooner it’s resolved the less chance that it’s gonna be a problem,” Scott said.
While a Fire Department spokesperson said it is working on improving its citation and enforcement system, the Department of Building Inspection had concerns about the report.
The building inspection department disputed some of the Civil Grand Jury’s findings, saying it had some inaccurate data, like the number of residential buildings that went uninspected in the last five years. The report, which does not include data from a 2015 “inspection blitz” after several damaging Mission District fires, finds that 38 percent of buildings went uninspected for longer than the stipulated five-year maximum. DBI says the more accurate statistic is close to just 6 percent.
“The reality is DBI has one of the most robust code enforcement processes in the nation in terms of responding to tenant complaints tied to habitability and fire safety issues,” wrote William Strawn, who manages legislative and public affairs at the Department of Building Inspection. “We tried to make this clear to members of the Grand Jury, and will continue to work to increase awareness about the successful efforts we make with owners and tenants.”
The report also points to a lack of staff for the thousands of inspections conducted annually by the building inspection department. Just 14 district inspectors were responsible for the more than 4,000 routine inspections a year, according to the report, and the department currently has two open inspector positions. DBI says there are 18 inspectors total and four open positions overall, and some 11,000 inspections are performed every year.
“We believe that one of the main reasons a routine inspection backlog exists and some violations take too long for property owners to correct is because [the housing inspection division] does not have enough inspectors and support staff to fully cover its workload,” jurors wrote.
Inspectors, the report notes, also have discretion over whether to allow a landlord more time to remedy a code violation, which can lead to delays in getting cases closed. DBI says some 6,000 violations are abated within 60 days annually, and only 12 percent of those are fire safety issues.
Tenant advocate Diana Flores of Causa Justa said while some accommodations may be appropriate for mom-and-pop landlords trying their best to get things fixed, discretion can be problematic if there isn’t enough pressure on landlords to abate serious violations.
“The way that the system should work is, after every re-inspection you should follow the next step,” she said. “And if the next step is to file for a Director’s Hearing then that’s what should happen.”
Though she acknowledged that there may be gaps in enforcement, Flores echoed concerns over the report, saying the report speaks of some problems in the past tense because they are already being addressed.
“As I was reading it, I kept thinking about that there might be some …gaps in inspection, but I think what I want to do is see what of this is true and has there been any changes recently that might clearly refute it,” she said. “The reality is that some of the recommendations will not be implemented because it’s not warranted or reasonable.”
For the Fire Department, the jury recommended more procedural changes and also noted a lack of transparency.
Many Fire Department inspections fall to company captains (a company is assigned to an engine or truck), and the report found that some companies are disproportionately burdened by nearly 400 of properties they must inspect, while others have fewer than a dozen.
Further, it reported that some captains are not very familiar with the code enforcement process, while others do not take written guidelines with them when they perform inspections. Many have been trained to prioritize learning about the quirks of buildings they are inspecting to prepare for fighting a possible fire there, rather than looking for code violations.
“Because firefighters’ primary motivation for inspecting [buildings] is to develop building awareness, they may not sufficiently give equal importance to code compliance” in inspections, the report notes.
The Fire Department also lacks an administrative enforcement system like the Building Inspection Department, the report noted. City supervisors have already mandated that the Fire Department create a records and enforcement program similar to DBI’s, but it has yet to be rolled out.
The Fire Marshal was unavailable for interviews at press time, but a Fire Department spokesperson said the department has already received funding for three new inspectors and formed an outreach group that includes a Building Inspector as well as fire prevention inspectors. The Civil Grand Jury also noted that staff has been added to a group that works to rapidly enforce violations.
“With the addition of more prevention officers and doing more community outreach with our landlords and tenants, they can all start working collaboratively to make everything safer,” said Jonathan Baxter, a fire department spokesperson.
Both departments said they have already taken steps to mitigate some of the problems outlined in the report. They plan to respond formally to the report by late October. The matter will also be heard by the Board of Supervisors at a yet to be determined date.
This story has been updated with additional information about the number of inspectors and inspections, and the number of inspections abated within 60 days.