Firefighters demonstrate proper extinguisher use on a simulated fire

Fire Department members, a tenant lawyer, and Building Inspection officials on Tuesday night offered fire safety tips and encouraged tenants and landlords of live-work spaces to file complaints about safety concerns with the proper authority, be it the Department of Building Inspection, the Planning Department, or the Fire Department.

“If you feel comfortable, report it,” said Fire Department spokesperson Jonathan Baxter to a gathering of some 50 tenants and landlords held at the Brava Theater Tuesday night. “Make a report so we can go and make this safe for you and for everyone else.”

A complaint of a hazard through the city’s tip systems is the best way to get knowledgeable eyes on the situation, and may end with a notice being sent to the landlord to make improvements. The panelists agreed that retaliatory evictions against tenants who made such complaints are prohibited in San Francisco.

“You’re protected. They cannot just summarily evict you,” said Building Inspection Commissioner Debra Walker, who herself lives in a warehouse live-work space. Unless an immediate threat to safety exists in the building, tenants most likely don’t have to leave.

Scott Weaver, a tenant rights attorney, said tenant protections in San Francisco are extensive and the most common scenario that leads to displacement is that tenants don’t know their rights.

“They rely on anecdotal evidence,” he said. “Whether residential or commercial, 80-90 percent of the time, cases are settled out of court. Compare that to just leaving when your landlord tells you to.”

A few practical tips were also offered. Event organizer Spike Kahn, who runs an arts space called the Pacific Felt Factory, had a few hundred smoke detectors and fire extinguishers on hand to pass out.

More are available to those who need them by contacting Kahn and the organizations under the United to Save the Mission umbrella.

Landlords must meet stringent inspection requirements for fire extinguishers, but tenants can also get their own, which just need to be replaced every five years (or when the manufacturer specifies). They should also be shaken every month to keep the extinguishing powder from settling and caking at the bottom. Not every extinguisher works for every type of fire, and should have pictograms on the side denoting the fire it is best suited to extinguish.  

The firefighters recommended multi-purpose extinguishers, specifically 2A:10BC types for residential and commercial spaces and 3A:40BC types for hazardous occupancies.

Solvents and flammable liquids must be stored in airtight and flameproof containers, at least ten feet away from possible ignition sources . If there are more than five gallons in the building, they need to be in a flammable liquid safety cabinet.

Rags soaked in liquids like linseed oil produce heat as the compounds decompose, and can spontaneously combust. So solvent-soaked rags can’t be piled or simply thrown into the trash, and instead should be disposed of in a metal container filled with water.

There was also advice that tenants of any kind of building would do well to remember.

Circuit breakers that repeatedly pop shouldn’t simply be replaced with higher-capacity breakers, since this actually burns the wires they are supposed to protect. Space heaters shouldn’t be plugged into extension cords.

Extension cords are always inferior to hard-wiring and never a permanent solution, but if they must be used, high-quality surge-protected ones are preferable. “Piggybacking” one extension cord into another is a bad idea, fire officials said.

As the night went on it also became clear that answering questions about specific safety challenges facing tenants or owners of underground live-work spaces turned out to be a difficult because the answers are always location-specific.

One person wanted to know if rooms within other rooms, lacking their own windows, could be made safe by providing a skylight for egress.  The consensus seemed to be that they couldn’t, but this turned into a discussion of living spaces developing in warehouses.

“You can’t have a generic rule. You really have to facilitate a situation where the landlord is willing to walk through this process with you,” said Debra Walker, who sits on the Building Inspection Commission and also lives in an artist live-work space. “Each warehouse has to be looked at to see if it can accommodate all of these requirements.”

What would really help, said David X, who helped build out the mixed-use arts space CELLSpace in its heyday, would be the creation of a mixed-use inspection checklist that would help inspectors from any department immediately be able to identify the needs of buildings that don’t fall neatly into either residential or commercial categories.

“The real work is to figure out mixed use spaces,” he said. After the meeting, he added, “This is a tough place for people [who work for] the city. People are asking about things that just don’t fall into their boxes.”

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