Mission Fire: S.F. Fire Marshal Wants Better Documentation From Inspectors

San Francisco firefighters battle a four-alarm blaze in a building at 22nd and Mission streets on Jan. 28, 2015.

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)

Update, Monday, Feb 16: San Francisco’s fire marshal says she plans to tell her inspectors this week that they have to do a better job of documenting code violations.

The fire marshal, Assistant Deputy Chief Michie Wong, has acknowledged weaknesses in the department’s recording of safety problems in the city’s apartment buildings.

The work of the agency’s fire prevention inspectors is now under scrutiny after a fatal four-alarm fire in the Mission District last month.

In an interview with KQED on Sunday, Wong said her staff did not properly document some inspections for the building at 22nd and Mission streets that went up in flames on Jan. 28.

She said she’s holding a meeting with two dozen inspectors on Wednesday to urge them to document everything they see. “We need to tighten up documentation,” Wong said.

The building that burned did not have sprinklers on the second and third floors, where residents lived. At least two of the building’s exits were blocked at the time of the blaze.

Fire inspectors knew of several safety problems in the structure for years but did a sloppy job of documenting whether those violations were fixed, the San Francisco Chronicle reported over the weekend.

In some cases inspectors issued notices of violation to the owner, but did not always file follow-up paperwork that stated any fixes, Wong noted. She said she planned to ask the fire department’s IT manager to include a new drop-down field on its computer database for inspectors to fill out, stating whether violations are fixed after they’re discovered.

Fire inspectors learned three years ago that a door to the building’s roof was padlocked. They thought the owner had unlocked the door but on the night of the fire it was locked, Wong said.

Fire escape ladders are supposed to be inspected by the Department of Building Inspection.¬†DBI spokesman Bill Strawn said in an interview with KQED on Sunday that one of the agency’s inspectors approved the building’s ladders in November 2010.

Strawn said most safety violations come to the department’s attention when someone complains about them. He said no one contacted DBI about the fire escape after the last inspection.

The department tries to conduct housing inspections every three to five years, he said. But in recent years, thanks to the influx of construction in the city, that pace has slowed. “We like to have those take place closer to the three-year cycle, but with the building boom inspectors have been really busy with a lot of other inspections.”

Tom Hui, the head of DBI, plans to meet with his senior staff this Tuesday, Strawn said. In that meeting, Hui plans to push inspectors to increase the frequency of housing inspections.

Officials with the fire department, DBI and the Department of Public Health are scheduled to discuss ways to improve fire prevention safety at a Board of Supervisors hearing on March 4, said Carolyn Goossen, an aide to Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission.

Goossen also said over the weekend that officials have found replacement housing for 38 of the 58 people displaced by the fire. She said the city is looking aggressively to find homes for the 20 others.

Original post:

A source close to the inquiry into last month’s fatal apartment fire in San Francisco’s Mission District says investigators have confirmed that two exits from the building were blocked.

The blaze early on the evening of Jan. 28 killed one person, injured six and caused more than $8 million in damage to the three-story building at 22nd and Mission streets. The fire left more than 60 people homeless.

Reports surfaced immediately that fire escapes and alarms didn’t work properly and that some tenants had trouble escaping the burning building. Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said firefighters had made about a dozen rescues from the building, which housed businesses on the ground floor, offices on the second floor and apartments on the top floor.

Mission Local, a neighborhood news organization that was a commercial tenant in the building, reported that some of the displaced tenants said their units had no smoke detectors.

On Friday, a source said that investigators found that two potential escape routes had been blocked. A door to the building’s roof had been padlocked, the source said, and security bars over a bedroom window had been bolted closed.

Hawk Lou, the building’s owner, has released documents showing that the building passed earlier fire safety inspections and that its exits were working and unblocked.

The investigation into the fire is ongoing.

Author

Ted Goldberg

Ted Goldberg is the morning editor for KQED News. His beat areas include San Francisco politics, the city's fire department and the Bay Area's refineries.

Prior to joining KQED in 2014, Ted worked at CBS News and WCBS AM in New York and Bay City News and KCBS Radio in San Francisco. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1998.

You can follow him at @TedrickG and reach him on email at tgoldberg@kqed.org

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