S.F. Could Require Some Older Apartment Buildings to Get Sprinklers

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)

San Francisco officials should consider requiring some of the city's older apartment buildings to be equipped with sprinklers, according to a new city analysis.

City law requires that sprinkler systems be installed in new and renovated apartment buildings, commercial structures, tourist hotels and many single-room-occupancy hotels, but not in older apartments that house many San Franciscans.

The lack of sprinklers in older buildings has drawn attention in the aftermath of apartment fires over the past two years that have killed four people, displaced hundreds and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Two members of the Board of Supervisors have suggested that San Francisco require at least some of its older apartment buildings to get "sprinkled." But, city officials, landlords and some tenant advocates have cautioned that requiring sprinkler retrofits would be too costly.

A view of on Mission Street near 29th Street on June 18, 2016.
A view of the fire on Mission Street near 29th Street on June 18, 2016. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Fire Department)

Those complications are laid out in a new Budget and Legislative Analyst's report that estimates installing fire sprinklers would range from $46,000 for older three-unit buildings to $300,000 in older 16-unit buildings. The price tag for more extensive sprinkler retrofits in larger buildings could top half a million dollars.

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Under city law, landlords can raise rents to recover some of those costs.

Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission District, where some of the fatal fires took place, requested the analyst's report and said he hopes the city pursues some kind of new sprinkler policy before the end of the year.

"Long term, it does make sense that we want to have as many sprinklers in as many buildings as we can," Campos said in an interview. "But, short term, I do think that we need to, because of the challenges including cost, begin with the most dangerous, vulnerable buildings and prioritize those."

The legislative analyst recommends that the Fire Department's Bureau of Fire Prevention develop criteria for assessing fire hazards and identifying buildings that are at highest risk.

"The city should prioritize high-risk buildings for a retroactive sprinkler requirement," the report says.

To satisfy any potential new sprinkler rules, building owners would need to purchase sprinkler heads, water meters and devices to prevent water used in the systems from flowing back into a building's drinking water supply.

To help defray some of those costs, the report recommends the city consider lending money to property owners in a setup similar to San Francisco's seismic safety loan program.

Firefighters responding to March 11, 2015 blaze that killed two members of a family living in a second-floor apartment at 24th Street and Treat Avenue in San Francisco's Mission District.
Firefighters responding to March 11, 2015, blaze that killed two members of a family living in a second-floor apartment at 24th Street and Treat Avenue in San Francisco's Mission District. (Lindsey Hoshaw/KQED)

The study now goes to a task force that suggested stronger fire safety regulations. The proposals, eventually approved by the Board of Supervisors, focused on strengthening regulations for fire alarms but not sprinklers.

Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, criticized the new regulations for failing to require sprinkler retrofits.

In July, when Campos requested the sprinkler study, Shaw expressed hope that would change. "I think the political support for passage is there," he said.

Fire officials nationwide have emphasized the importance of sprinklers in saving lives. According to a National Fire Protection Association study in 2013, the death rate per 1,000 reported residential fires was 82 percent lower in residential buildings with sprinkler systems compared to those without them.

San Francisco reflects a similar trend. Five out of six buildings damaged by fire between 2010 and 2015 had no sprinkler systems, according to data released by the Fire Department last year.

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