Is SFFD Committed to Protecting Tenants?

by Steve Clayton on April 26, 2016

The Board of Supervisors recently passed legislation changing how the San Francisco Fire Department enforces the Fire Code.  SFFD has long been criticized for failing to perform adequate Fire Code enforcement in SF’s apartments and SRO hotels.  In light of fires in the Mission District, however, the Fire Department’s position on the legislation raises more questions than answers.

At a Land Use hearing on April 4, 2016, San Francisco’s Fire Marshall stated his Department’s opposition to legislation requiring the Fire Department to issue Notices of Violations (NOVs) for Fire Code violations in residential apartment buildings.

Fire Marshall Dan D’Cozio testified that SFFD’s current practice of issuing “Notices of Correction (NOC),” which have little legal weight, was “successful,” because it allowed the Dept. to “partner with landlords,” in achieving fire safety.  The Fire Marshall went on to say that, in instances when NOCs were not successful in abating “priority complaints, we then move on to the Notice of Violation.”

Many of San Francisco’s 400,000 tenants might ask why the Fire Dept. would wait so long after witnessing a life safety violation of the Fire Code, to, at the very least, issue a citation with legal authority to the landlord.

The Board of Supervisors ultimately passed the legislation, authored by Supervisor Scott Wiener, despite the Fire Department’s opposition to NOVs.  However, the legislation allows SFFD to continue to handle “priority complaints” differently from “standard complaints,” within the new NOV process.

If a condition in a residential apartment building rises to the level of a violation of the Fire Code, isn’t it inherently dangerous to the tenants of that building? But eager to avoid SFFD opposition to the measure, the Board agreed to allow it to have two different NOV processes.

SFFD’s Opposition

The fact that the Fire Department opposed a simple requirement to issue a mere Notice of Violation speaks volumes about what tenants can expect going forward.  Currently, SFFD has the ability to hold administrative hearings, and issue penalties for landlords who violate the Fire Code, but the Fire Dept. chooses not to do so.  They do not hold hearings at SFFD.

SFFD does not have a penalty process for when a landlord is found to be in violation.  As a result, other city agencies have had to scramble to cover for SFFD’s glaring lack of concern for tenant safety, for years and years.  With all the fire safety problems in tens of thousands of residential buildings in this City, what does that say about the Fire Dept.’s attitude toward tenants?

Under the new legislation, the Fire Code enforcement process requires SFFD to hold administrative hearings, and issue penalties for landlords, but only for “priority complaints.”  An NOV with a “standard complaint” never has to go to a hearing.

How will the Fire Dept. differentiate between “priority” and “standard” complaints?  The legislation only defines “priority” as “life safety hazard.”  Does that mean something that is a “fire hazard” is not a “life safety hazard”, and therefore will never be penalized if it never gets corrected?

Since SFFD did not even support an NOV requirement, one can presume that the Supervisors allowed the brass to create this loophole, to avoid losing their complete support.

Activists will have to closely follow the implementation of Fire Code enforcement at the Fire Commission over the coming months, if fire safety is going to improve significantly for SF’s tenants.

Misplaced Priorities

While the SFFD gives negligent residential landlords a pass, it zealously targets rigorous enforcement against event promoters or nightclubs, contending that the gatherings are a fire hazard.  How many times have entertainment industry workers complained of harassment by the Fire Dept. for simply trying to have a successful event?  But if an apartment building housing dozens of tenants has a padlocked fire exit, the Fire Dept. does nothing.  What does that say about the priorities of the Fire Dept.?  Could tenant safety be any lower of a priority?

SFFD blames a lack the resources for its failure to address any level of tenant fire safety.  But their budget is over $350 million, and they have over 1500 personnel.  Further, the Fire Dept. has contended that we are having fewer fires than in past years.  If there are fewer fires, then why can’t resources be redeployed to address tenant fire safety?

The number of fire inspectors could be increased to finally enforce the Fire Code in residential apartment buildings through a new penalty, hearing and litigation system.  And the San Francisco Fire Department could finally enforce the Fire Code where most San Franciscans need it most: in their homes.

Filed under: San Francisco News

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