S.F. Fire Department Faces Board of Supervisors Hearing on Investigation Backlog

The facade of the San Francisco Fire Department's old Station 1, on Howard Street.  (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

San Francisco Supervisor David Campos plans to call for a hearing to look into why the city's Fire Department still faces a backlog of hundreds of incomplete investigations.

"There has to be a better way of these fires being investigated in a more timely fashion," Campos said in an interview. "It's taking too long."

Campos commented in the wake of a Fire Department report aimed at calming concerns in the Mission District that an increase in the number of structure fires in the neighborhood this year could be the work of arsonists.

In discussing the Mission blazes during a Fire Commission meeting last week, Daniel De Cossio, a deputy fire chief and the city's current fire marshal, acknowledged the department is working through a backlog of more than 300 open fire investigations. KQED reported in June that the department's understaffed arson task force had been wrestling with the backlog, with some cases remaining open for four years or more. Subsequently, the number of open cases grew to more than 400.

De Cossio said in an interview that now, with more investigators in place, the department has reduced the backlog to 302. He said that one of the challenges to getting through the old cases is the steady stream of new ones -- at least 30 a month.


He said that by next June, he wants the backlog reduced to around 40 or 50 cases, and he wants it to be the department's practice to complete investigations a month after they're begun.

"We have a very good team in place and the numbers reflect that," De Cossio said. "We are trending in the right direction, those numbers are declining, and I anticipate in the next six months or so we should be pretty close to our target."

Campos said a hearing to look into why investigations are taking so long to complete will probably take place as the Board of Supervisors considers recommendations a city task force unveiled last month that call for stricter standards for fire alarms in older apartment buildings.

The task force, which includes De Cossio, was created after two fires in the Mission District killed three people and displaced scores of others.

Campos said he asked Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White a few weeks ago to provide information to ease residents' concerns that the rise in fire activity in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood was the result of arson.

The Fire Department's data show there have been 19 structure fires in the Mission this year, none of which were intentionally set. The department says arson was involved in only one of the more than 60 structure fires in the district over the past four years.

Campos says that report is a good start, but not enough.

"They have to do a better job of providing information to the public," Campos said. "It's not enough for folks in the Mission for the Fire Department to say, 'Don't worry, it's not arson.' "

Campos wants the department to release the investigative results on each of the fires in the neighborhood this year.

"What we have seen is at least the appearance of dysfunction in terms of the arson unit," Campos said, alluding to complaints about the detachment's previous understaffing. "The longer you wait to say what the specific cause was, the more questions people have."

Capt. Attica Bowden, recently appointed to head the arson unit, says the department requires investigations for all of the city's largest blazes -- those in which two or more alarms have been called. For smaller fires, Bowden said, arson investigators are called in only when incident commanders believe a blaze has been intentionally set or they can't determine the cause themselves.

Of the 19 structure fires in the Mission this year, De Cossio says 10 have been the subject of arson investigations.

One of those probes is still open, concerning a March apartment fire that killed two people at 24th Street and Treat Avenue.

Eight of the other larger structure fires this year in the Mission were found to be accidental, De Cossio said. Fire investigators were unable to determine the cause of one other blaze.

Investigators were not called to the scenes of nine smaller structure fires in the Mission this year because incident commanders deemed it unnecessary. De Cossio said he feels assured those incidents were not the result of arson, though he hasn't actually looked at the cases.

Campos, meantime, is the second member of the Board of Supervisors to show concern about the backlog.

In July, board president London Breed called for Hayes-White to be replaced because of the department's failure to close out investigations.

The push for more information from the Fire Department has prompted De Cossio to initiate a program in which fire officials plan next year to give presentations to neighborhood groups throughout the city to go over what kind of fire activity has occurred in their areas.