San Francisco Steps Up Construction Fire Safety Enforcement, Wins Key Case
San Francisco firefighters respond to the March 11, 2014, fire at Fourth and China Basin streets. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
San Francisco officials have beat back an attempt to throw out the punishment against the only company cited in connection with one of the Bay Area's largest structure fires in recent years.
The citation in connection with a massive fire in the Mission Bay neighborhood was the first enforcement against a construction firm for a fire safety violation in the city’s recent history. It led two agencies to implement stricter safety rules governing construction work at a time when the city is experiencing a development boom.
An administrative hearing officer recently upheld the citation issued by the San Francisco Fire Department against T.C. Steel, a Petaluma-based subcontractor, in connection with the five-alarm fire on March 11.
A month later, the department found the fire was accidental but then issued a $1,000 fine against the company for not following rules aimed at guarding against fire risks from welding and grinding in the moments before the blaze. T.C. Steel appealed that citation, prompting a set of hearings to decide whether the sub-contractor conducted a hot-work fire-watch.
It was during one of those hearings that T.C. Steel’s president and owner, Thomas Cleary, spoke publicly for the first time about the fire that injured several firefighters, caused $40 million dollars in damage, and could be seen for hours from around the central Bay Area.
Cleary testified that his company had a clean safety record for the last quarter of a century. During that time, T.C. Steel had been involved in more than a thousand jobs, Cleary said.
He said he conducted his own investigation into the fire. He was given access to the building a week after the blaze, looked at photos and video, and even filed a public records request with the city to get a list of all of the sub-contractors doing work on the 1200 4th St. project. Suffolk Construction was and is the main contractor on the building.
Cleary said his company’s work was done safely. He vigorously disagreed with the fire department’s allegation that his workers did not abide by the fire code.
“It’s inaccurate,” Cleary said. “It makes it sound like we were dropping sparks right on the plywood with no protection at all.”
The fire department has maintained that the blaze most likely burned from the roof, where T.C. Steel workers were conducting "hot work," downward.
During his testimony, Cleary said the fire must have started inside the building a few floors below the roof. Cleary said the fire could not have burned through the roof, down inside the building, through welding blankets, plywood, and insulation.
The Mission Bay Fire did, in fact, burn a considerable amount. KQED has obtained fire department photos taken during the department's investigation.
The fine against T.C Steel was was one of the first fire safety violation issued by the fire department -- ever -- according to the fire marshal.
Change to the Building Code
Several years ago, California began using the International Code Council Standards, currently referred to simply as the building code. Those rules now allow for the use of wood joists or beams and lightweight structural frames in large building projects.
The fire risks associated with those new rules “were spectacularly realized at the Mission Bay Fire,” said fire department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge. “The fire department is now taking a very proactive stance on the issuing of citations.”
Before the Mission Bay blaze, the department traditionally issued citations for public safety violations, things like overcrowding or blocked exits. Fire officials have said the new construction in the city and the changes in building requirements that allow faster-burning materials in larger structures prompted the department to be more aggressive.
In fact, last month, the department issued two such citations to a company tied to another construction fire in the city. The fire department fined Build Group for removing sprinkler systems at two sites after being told by the department to keep the systems in place.
The company, Build Group, disputes that charge and says the fire department approved the removal of sprinkler systems at both sites.
So far this year, the fire department has issued four fire safety citations against construction companies, Talmadge said.
The citations carry $1,000 fines.
“For some companies that’s a lot of money; for some companies, it’s a drop in the bucket,” said Talmadge. “But it really is the message and it’s also documented – next time there’s an application to do hot work or a permit application, that’s in the file for that company.”
Fire Watch Requirements
There seems to be some confusion over how long the “fire watch” before the Mission Bay Fire was supposed to be maintained.
Shortly after the fire department cited T.C. Steel, Talmadge told KQED that the company had not satisfied a 30-minute requirement. The citation was prompted by a violation of San Francisco Fire Code section 3504.2 which states that the watch should continue for a minimum of 30 minutes after the end of work.
But the fire department noted that T.C. Steel was issued a city-wide hot work operations permit. Fire Marshal Michie Wong, in her testimony before the hearing officer, said as a special condition of that permit, the company was required to conduct a one-hour fire watch.
Cleary testified that the hot work permit issued to Suffolk, the main contractor, was for a 30-minute watch. He said he believed his crew was supposed to abide by the shorter time requirement stemming from Suffolk’s permit.
The hearing officer, Claude Dawson Ames, sided with the fire department and agreed that T.C. Steel needed to keep watch for an hour.
According to the fire investigator’s report, T.C. Steel's crew stopped welding at 3:10 p.m. They were on the ground 5 minutes later, and the construction site was cleared by 3:25 p.m. Given that timeline, it would appear that the workers only watched out for fire risks for a few minutes, at most.
Firefighters were called to the scene about an hour and a half later. People from throughout the city and rest of the region could see flames and smoke from the blaze for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
Renoir Hotel Fire
Meanwhile, the city's fire department has officially determined a three-alarm construction site fire at the old Renoir Hotel in San Francisco's Mid-Market area was an accident. The fire injured at least eight workers and caused $1.2 million in damage.
According to the department’s investigative report, the fire at 45 McAllister St. on Aug. 4 was ignited from sparks from a stud welder during the renovation of the building.
The investigation prompted the department to cite the project's main contractor, Build Group, for removing the building’s sprinkler systems after being told by the agency to keep the systems in place.
The fire began on the second floor near an elevator shaft that was under construction in the center of the building, the report said. Welders doing work in the building began smelling what seemed like burning plastic, according to the investigation. They then saw smoke coming from the wood floor and began trying to put out the fire themselves using several portable water extinguishers. The fire continued to spread, so the workers fled.
Fire officials who entered the building after the blaze was extinguished said burn patterns indicated the fire started in a crawl space below the second floor and then traveled upward. They found a stud welding gun in the area.
The investigators were unsure of what a stud welding gun was, so they looked it up on the Internet, among other things. They learned that it is a form of arc welding which can generate sparks. The technique is used to weld bolts or nuts.
The investigation, though, was unable to conclude what material was first ignited from those welding sparks.
“They were able to determine the cause of ignition and the heat source, but they really didn’t determine what was the item that was first ignited,” fire department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said. “We do know that it did definitely get into a wood structure, so obviously there could have been other items in there that maybe caught fire first and then it extended into the wood.”
The release of the fire department’s investigation comes as Build Group has intensified its challenge of the citations. SFFD issued two safety citations against the company in connection with the removal of fire sprinkler safety systems, one for the old Renoir Hotel and another for a project on Buchanan Street.
The company has said it is appealing the citations because it believes it followed the fire department’s instructions. In a statement issued last month, Charlie Goodyear, a representative of the company, said the firm “never received a directive instructing the company to not remove fire sprinklers.”
According to Build Group’s director of safety, Ron Bullock, the company has approved and stamped drawings from the fire department and the Department of Building Inspection that state the sprinklers would be removed during the renovation work.
Read Build Group's appeal letter for the Renoir Hotel citation here and the Buchanan Street citation here.