A Year After Fatal Fires, S.F. Supervisor Proposing New Safety Measures

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)

San Francisco Supervisor David Campos is ready to unveil a set of measures to strengthen city fire, building and housing codes following a series of major apartment building fires in the Mission District and elsewhere over the past 15 months.

In a series of proposals to be announced at a press conference Tuesday, Campos wants to require building owners to file paperwork with the city’s Department of Building Inspection every year showing that fire alarm systems in the common areas of their apartment buildings are working properly.

Under the new rules, owners of buildings already equipped with fire alarm systems would have to ensure that they are loud enough to wake up sleeping tenants.

Landlords would also have to post written notices about smoke alarm requirements on each floor of their buildings. And DBI would create a website where tenants can look up their building to see if their landlord has complied with the rules.

The proposal would also require building owners to take new safety measures that would slow the spread of fires through attics.

“If some of these measures had been in place, perhaps we could have saved a life or two,” Campos said Monday.

‘Sending a Message’

Landlords who violate the rules would face civil fines and could be sued by the city attorney’s office.

“It sends a message to property owners that the city is serious about this and we’re going to hold them accountable and they better follow the letter and spirit of the law,” Campos said.

The San Francisco Apartment Association, a group that represents many landlords in the city, worked with Campos on the legislation.

But the association’s chief says she’s still worried her members will be burdened with too much paperwork.

“There have been so many law changes in the past couple of years and different ways that you need to comply,” said Janan New, the association’s executive director. “There’s a point where you get reporting fatigue or you get overwhelmed with bureaucratic paperwork.”

Campos said he expects the Department of Building Inspection to beef up staffing and increase training at the agency in order to enforce the changes.

“Quite frankly, they’re going to have to be more proactive,” Campos said. “One of the things we’ve seen with some of the buildings that have caught fire is that many of them had violations and it doesn’t seem like there was enough follow-through on the part of the city.”

The department has added more than 40 new workers, agency spokesman Bill Strawn said. Campos’ proposals will be considered by the city’s Building Inspection Commission, which could recommend hiring more inspectors, Strawn said.

Response to Pair of Fatal Fires

Some of the new measures result from a task force set up after two deadly Mission District blazes last year.

On Jan. 28, 2015, a fire swept through a mixed residential and commercial building at Mission and 22nd streets, killing one man and displacing dozens of commercial tenants.

That building did not have sprinklers on the second and third floors, where residents lived. At least two of its exits were blocked at the time of the four-alarm fire. The city’s fire marshal acknowledged that inspectors did not properly document code violations for the building.

Dozens of tenants who lived there later filed a set of lawsuits against the building’s landlord, claiming neglected repairs contributed to the fire.

A week after the fire, Campos began to float the idea of new fire safety reforms.

On March 11, 2015, another fire killed two members of a family at 24th Street and Treat Avenue. An investigation of that blaze revealed that the family’s apartment lacked smoke detectors.

No Action on Sprinkler Retrofits

In April 2015, a Board of Supervisors committee held a hearing to look at ways to install sprinklers in more of the city’s older apartment buildings. During that hearing, fire officials released data showing that five out of every six buildings damaged by fire between 2010 and 2015 had no sprinkler systems.

Supervisor Jane Kim looked into crafting a sprinkler ordinance.

“The data shows that sprinklers absolutely save lives,” Kim said at the time.

The S.F. Apartment Association has opposed any attempt to require retrofitting the city’s older buildings with sprinklers, citing the expense and a long list of logistical issues. Instead, the association proposed improved education for tenants on the use of fire extinguishers and fire escapes.

In December, when a six-member group made up of members of four city agencies released its recommendations, it did not include suggestions on sprinklers. Neither does Campos’ proposal.

But his package includes more help for tenants displaced by fires. After apartment building blazes, city officials and landlords would need to do more to make sure that tenants can come back safely to retrieve their belongings. Owners of buildings damaged by fire would have to explain to the city and their tenants their plans for repairs and provide an estimated time for when tenants can come back and live in them.

The supervisor’s legislation comes a week after a pair of apartment building fires in the Mission District displaced around three dozen tenants.

Last Thursday, a three-alarm fire damaged two buildings on 17th Street near Guerrero Street. A day later, a two-alarm blaze damaged an apartment building on Poplar Street near the intersection of 24th and Valencia streets.

Both fires are under investigation.

The release of Campos’ proposal will come a day before the Fire Commission holds a meeting in the Mission aimed at addressing frequently expressed concerns that residential fires in the area could be the work of arsonists.

In December, the Fire Department issued a report that found, over the last four years, only one fire in the Mission was the result of arson.

At Wednesday’s Fire Commission meeting, Fire Marshal Dan De Cossio and Capt. Attica Bowden, the new head of the agency’s arson task force, plan to talk about investigations into some of the neighborhood’s higher-profile fires.

That meeting will take place at the Mission Neighborhood Centers, 362 Capp St., at 5 p.m..

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

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor