S.F. Needs to Improve on Fire Inspections, Civil Grand Jury Says

San Francisco firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze in a mixed residential and commercial building at 22nd and Mission streets on Jan. 28, 2015. One person died and more than 60 others were displaced by the fire.  (Rebecca Bowe/KQED)

The two agencies tasked with ensuring San Francisco's residential buildings are safe from fires are doing a poor job of getting building owners to correct safety violations, according to a new report from the city's civil grand jury.

The Department of Building Inspection and the Fire Department barely coordinate on code enforcement and take too long to complete inspections of multi-unit residential buildings, the report released Thursday found.

"If they're not able to, on their own, complete all inspections and have timely code enforcement, they must find a way to work together in order to deal with this problem," civil grand jury foreperson Alison Ileen Scott said in an interview Thursday.

"We found that fire safety hazards that go undetected or take too long to correct unnecessarily contribute to the risk that our housing stock and its residents will suffer from catastrophic fires that take lives, damage property, and displace tenants," the report stated.

The study was prompted by three large fires in the city's Mission District in late 2014 and early 2015 that killed three people, displaced scores of others, shuttered dozens of businesses and caused more than $11 million in damage.

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In September 2014, a five-alarm fire injured five people and damaged six buildings, including one that housed Big House Inc., a large retail store on Mission Street between 22nd and 23rd streets. In January of the following year, a four-alarm blaze killed one man in a three-story commercial and residential building at Mission and 22nd streets. Two months later, a blaze killed two members of a family at 24th Street and Treat Avenue.

The civil grand jury noted that all three buildings had been repeatedly cited for city code violations and pointed out that the structure at Mission and 22nd streets may have had uncorrected code violations when the fire started.

Documentation of that building's code compliance was so unclear that members of the civil grand jury asked Fire Department officials to help decipher it. During a meeting last spring, department representatives were unable to answer the jury's questions about the building, Scott said.

"No one could tell us for certain whether or not the code violations that were cited before the fire were actually resolved before the fire happened," Scott said.

The Fire Department has not moved fast enough to force building owners to fix violations the agency considers "urgent," like problems with fire alarms, sprinklers and blocked exits, according to the report.

California's health and safety code mandates that the Fire Department annually inspect residential buildings with three or more units. But, according to the civil grand jury, the department inspects less than half -- 4,000 of the city's 9,000 buildings with at least three units.

A Fire Department spokesman says the two agencies have already improved collaboration.

"We've been working with DBI on this for over a year," Jonathan Baxter said. The two departments are holding monthly meetings and communicate daily, he said.

The Fire Department requested more funding for its inspection and prevention division in the most recent budget cycle, a request Mayor Ed Lee granted, Baxter said. The department is still reviewing the report and is expected to comment further next week.

Around 20 percent of the notices of violation that the Department of Building Inspection issued between 2013 and 2015 took more than a year to correct, the report found.

A Department of Building Inspection spokesman said the agency disputes the grand jury finding that housing inspectors failed to inspect a third of the multi-unit residential buildings in parts of the Mission, Chinatown and Tenderloin neighborhoods.

"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," Bill Strawn said. "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."

DBI recently released data showing how aggressive its inspectors were in getting building owners to correct housing code violations in the Mission and the rest of the city. According to the agency, 88 percent of more than 36,000 violations were corrected over the past three years.

The Mission fires prompted city officials to look harder at how older apartment buildings are inspected and how fires are investigated.

Several supervisors, including the Mission's David Campos, have proposed tighter rules on inspections and enforcement -- among other changes to the city's building, housing and fire codes -- after a safety task force was set up to offer recommendations.

But none of those proposals included changes to the city's sprinkler requirements, which upset at least one leading tenant advocate.

On Thursday, Campos announced plans to formally request that the board's budget and legislative analyst study the feasibility of requiring more of the city's residential buildings to have sprinkler systems.

Landlords of older apartment buildings that are not required to have sprinklers have said retrofitting the structures with the devices would cost too much and could displace tenants during installation.

"We are committed to making sprinklers happen not only in the Mission but throughout the city," Campos said at a City Hall news conference. "We want to do so in a way that protects rent-controlled housing, that protects tenants and that at the end of the day, makes sure that we prevent these fires."

Campos wants the analyst to look into ways the city could reduce the costs of sprinkler installations.

He also wants the Fire Department and the Department of Building Inspection to form a working group to consult with tenants, landlords, contractors and other city agencies and develop a set of sprinkler recommendations.

"Supervisor Campos made it clear that he wants to get this done before the end of the year, and I think the political support for passage is there," said Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who has pushed for a sprinkler ordinance.

Meantime, several fire safety reforms authored by Campos were approved by the board's Government Audit and Oversight Committee on Thursday. One measure would require that landlords upgrade their fire-alarm systems and file paperwork with the city every two years, proving that the devices work. Another would require owners of apartment buildings damaged by fire to quickly provide the city with a timeline for how they plan to make repairs.

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Those measures will go before the full board next week.

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