Surefire Fire Safety
by Charley Goss
In response to tragic fires in the Mission District over the last few years, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed two major fire safety ordinances to improve building fire safety and provide fire safety education for residential tenants. District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang passed ordinance 163-16, “Disclosure of Fire Safety Information,” while District 9 Supervisor David Campos passed ordinance 165-16, “Fire Safety Requirement for Existing Buildings.” Although the two ordinances don’t directly relate to each other, they were seen as a package of fire safety protections for residents. The Board of Supervisors approved both ordinances at their August 2, 2016 meeting, and the ordinances were signed and enacted by Mayor Lee on August 11, 2016.
For purposes of this article, and because there are a number of upcoming compliance deadlines, it makes sense to discuss what is required of building owners chronically, taking the two ordinances together, rather than to discuss what each ordinance separately requires of building owners.
When written and passed in August, the ordinances contemplated compliance deadlines of at least five months out, beginning in January 2017. Unfortunately, the two ordinances also necessitated a massive undertaking from both the San Francisco Fire Department and the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection to develop new forms, policies and procedures, enforcement schedules, and infrastructure to implement the new requirements. Regrettably, but through no fault of either department, many of the forms, procedures, and information about the two complicated ordinances weren’t prepared until late November 2016, giving residential building owners only two months to meet the first deadline, three months less than what was previously anticipated. SFAA and its members are dedicated to fire safety and preserving the wellbeing of both their residents and their buildings, but we also acknowledge that the two ordinances put members in a difficult position as they must rush to be in compliance with the new laws.
The first deadline for new fire safety regulations is January 31, 2017. By January 31, residential building owners will have to give to residents three form letters: Smoke Alarms and Carbon Monoxide Alarms Save Lives; Carbon Monoxide Alarms; and Appendix: Resources for San Francisco Tenants. These forms must also be posted on each floor of common areas. All three forms are available by calling the SFAA office, visiting the SFAA website, or visiting the new SFFD page designed to help building owners comply with the regulations (http://sf-fire.org/new-fire-safety-requirements-building-owners).
Also by January 31, 2017, buildings of nine or more units must have their fire alarm servicing company fill out the SFFD’s Statement of Compliance form (also available through SFAA or the SFFD). Once your fire alarm company completes the Statement of Compliance, it must be posted on each floor in common areas and mailed to the Fire Department at the following address:
SFFD, Statement of Compliance
698 2nd Street, Room 109
San Francisco, CA 94107
The fire code itself did not change with regards to fire alarm systems. So, if the fire code did not previously require your building to have a central fire alarm system, you are not suddenly required to install one, and you do not need to complete a Statement of Compliance. However, you do need to note that your building does not have a central fire alarm system, and inform the Fire Department at the noted address. This will remove you from the SFFD’s Statement of Compliance enforcement schedule. To verify whether or not your building is required to have a central fire alarm system, and for fire-code specific questions, please contact the SFFD’s Bureau of Fire Prevention at (415) 558-3300.
Buildings of between three and eight units still need to meet the Statement of Compliance requirements and procedures as well, but these buildings have until January 31, 2018 to complete and file the Statement of Compliance.
The next deadline of March 10, 2017 will require a lot of work from building owners and their agents, so it is best to begin as soon as possible. By March 10, building owners of three or more units will have to disclose fire safety information to new residents on or before they begin to live in the building and once a year thereafter. This disclosure must be a physical map of both the unit and the floor, so building owners will have to map out both individual apartment units and building floorplans, and must include the location of fire safety features in the unit and building.
Floor-specific maps must include: a depiction of the actual floor layout for the associated floor where the safety information sign is posted; the location of all fire extinguishers, emergency exits, fire escapes, fire alarm initiating pull stations and fire alarm control panel (if the building is required to have a fire alarm); the phone number of the appropriate contact within the San Francisco Fire Department for reporting suspected violations (Fire Prevention Violation Hotline 415-558-3300); wording immediately under the floor plan drawing stating “EXITS SHALL REMAIN UNOBSTRUCTED AT ALL TIMES”; a solid header with the text “SAFETY INFORMATION” in contrasting uppercase letters no less than 3/4” in height.
Unit-specific maps must show the location of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors within the apartment. Below the diagram of the unit, the building owner shall provide information on how to test the alarms and the date when the alarms were last replaced. The Disclosure Information may also include any other information that would assist a resident to escape or prevent a fire in the building, and must also include the phone number of the appropriate contact within the San Francisco Fire Department for reporting suspected violations. If there are additional fire safety features in the apartment, they should be included on the map as well.
By March 10, building owners will have to mail this disclosure map to each resident and post a map or diagram of building safety devices in common areas on every floor in the building. Maps do not need to be to scale or drawn by a professional surveyor or architect, but they should be a discernable depiction of both the apartment unit and the building floor. Sample disclosure maps are available from the SFAA office, on the SFAA website, or on the SFFD’s instructional website for building owners.
Additionally, starting March 10, 2017, building owners must provide an oral explanation of the Disclosure Information to new residents before they commence occupancy in the building; a written copy of the Disclosure Information to new residents on or before the commencement of occupancy (at lease signing when you give other disclosures); and a written copy, updated as appropriate, to all building residents on or before January 31 of each year. Once the written disclosures have been given to the residents, the owner of the apartment building must keep a record of its compliance by requesting that a resident from each dwelling unit execute and return a “Resident’s Statement” within 20 business days after receiving the disclosure. Although it’s incredibly redundant, this must be done both upon commencement of occupancy and in each subsequent year.
The Resident’s Statement must identify the date that the resident received the Disclosure Information. If the resident fails to complete and transmit a Resident’s Statement as requested, the owner shall execute a written statement (the “Owner’s Statement”) confirming the date that the owner provided the resident the Disclosure Information, and stating that the resident did not execute the statement as requested. The owner shall provide the resident a copy of the Owner’s Statement within five business days after it is executed. Samples of the Resident’s Statements and Owner’s Statements are available from the SFAA office, the SFAA website, and the SFFD website.
Once the disclosures and Resident’s or Owner’s Statements have been given, you must keep them for at least two years. A resident’s failure to complete and transmit a Resident’s Statement shall not constitute just cause under the San Francisco Rent Ordinance.
I’m sure your head is spinning by now, but wait, just like a bad infomercial, there’s more. Also by March 10, 2017, building owners must post contact information for the Fire Department at the building’s main entryway. Building owners must post a sign or sticker that should include the phone number of the owner, property manager, or other person who can give the Fire Marshal or other building inspector prompt access to the building to conduct safety inspections. Samples of these signs are available at SFAA.org or sf-fire.org.
By September 10, 2017, buildings with 16 or more units are required to provide annual fire safety training for building residents. This training should include the location of fire safety features and alarms and instructions of how to get out of the building in the event of an emergency. Any materials from the training must also be sent to all building residents.
While many of the new regulations deal with disclosures to residents and postings of fire safety features, there are also new requirements to physically upgrade the building’s fire safety features in certain circumstances. By July 1, 2021, building owners may have to upgrade their existing fire alarms to ensure that their system meets a “pillow test.” This means that the central fire alarm system must be loud enough for all residents to hear it from their bedroom. This requirement would also be triggered if you were to pull a permit to do work valued at $50,000 or more, meaning that some building owners will have to upgrade their fire alarm systems when they renovate units in their building. Permits for mandatory seismic retrofits are exempt and do not trigger this required upgrade. If you do happen to be doing work valued at over $50,000, and you have an open attic area, you may also be required to install fire blocks, draft stops, and fire insulation in your building’s attic area. Because this is highly technical, it is advisable to consult with a general contractor who is knowledgeable about the new requirements to see whether or not you are required to install these features.
And finally, there are also new requirements and regulations if your building experiences a fire. Please contact the SFAA office if a building you own or manage has a fire that displaces at least one resident, and we can walk you through the new requirements on a one-on-one basis.
SFAA is well aware that these requirements are confusing and difficult to comply with. We will have a number of free workshops for members on the new regulations. As always, you can contact the SFAA office to go over the various requirements and deadlines, and we can email or mail written information as well. The SFAA has produced instructions and samples to help with compliance, available for members. More information about the ordinances and new requirements is available at SFAA.org and sf-fire.org.
Charley Goss is the Government and Community Affairs Coordinator for the San Francisco Apartment Association. He can be reached at 415-255-2288, ex. 14.