SF Apartment : January 2018


Trial by Fire

by Pam McElroy

Fire Marshall Ken Cofflin talks about the revised fire legislation and what building owners can do to ensure their tenants and buildings are safe.

Pam McElroy: How long have you lived in the Bay Area, and what has kept you here?

Ken Cofflin: I moved to San Francisco in 1987 to go to San Francisco State. I lived in the city until I got married and moved to the East Bay in 2001. My wife and I now live in Walnut Creek with our eleven-year-old twins. We love living in the area, but ultimately, for me, what’s kept me here is my career with the San Francisco Fire Department.

Pam McElroy: And what brought you to become a fireman?

Ken Cofflin: I majored in economics, and I didn’t know what to do after graduation. I was a little lost. I had some college friends who joined the San Francisco Fire Department. They happened to be handing out job applications, which doesn’t happen often, so I decided to give it a shot.

Pam McElroy: What is your favorite part of the job?

Ken Cofflin: A lot of it has to do with planning for what could happen; there are a lot of events that happen in San Francisco. It’s about knowing the code and enforcing it. And mainly it’s overall public safety. I know that if nothing happens, we did our job right.

Pam McElroy: Do you have a least favorite part of the job?

Ken Cofflin: Not really! But teaching fire prevention can sometimes be a challenge—there is a lot to learn in the beginning—so at the start of being an inspector, it can be difficult. But now that I’ve grown into the role and I know what I’m doing, it’s something I really enjoy.

Pam McElroy: What fire safety mistakes do you see property owners and property managers make frequently?

Ken Cofflin: The most frequently made fire safety mistakes I see are often the more egregious ones, like the maintenance of systems. Fire alarm and sprinkler systems, for example. People think that just because the systems have been installed, that they continue working, but they need to be tested and maintained. Especially sprinkler systems.

Pam McElroy: How frequently should the major systems be inspected?

Ken Cofflin: Well, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets the inspection cycles. Some systems are monthly, some quarterly, some annually—and there’s a big sprinkler and sandpipe test that should happen every five years. In this five-year inspection, all parts of the systems are tested together. When you see that a system has been certified with a sticker, it usually means it passed this inspection. These requirements are a part of the fire code, which is all about early suppression and early notification.

So, if everything is working correctly, fire alarms get people out of a building and call the fire department, the sprinklers suppress the fire, and then the fire department comes and puts out the fire.

Pam McElroy: What was the intent behind the two pieces of legislation?

Ken Cofflin: The legislation was put forth by the Board of Supervisors because of the ongoing fires. There are two pieces of legislation. One was written by Supervisor Tang; this is the legislation that was just revised. The other piece was written by Supervisor Campos; this legislation hasn’t been modified. The intent behind Supervisor Tang’s legislation is to make sure tenants have available their specific building’s fire safety information. Supervisor Campos’s legislation makes sure building owners display proof that they’re maintaining their fire systems.

Pam McElroy: After more than a year, you’ve seen the successes and failures of the legislation. What is your opinion on the revision?

Ken Cofflin: After the legislation went into effect last year, there was a lot of confusion. It was difficult for building owners to comply. There were language barriers, owners who no longer lived in the city, and just plenty of situations that made compliance difficult. The revisions, which take effect on January 1, will hopefully correct these issues.

Fire safety information must still be provided to tenants, but it is much easier for building owners to comply, which hopefully will result in better compliance. The fire safety information is now available in multiple languages on our website—English, Spanish, Chinese, and Filipino.

Another change that was made is how the information can be delivered. In the original legislation, building owners had to hand a hard copy of the fire safety information to tenants, with a map detailing the location of the fire extinguishers, fire alarm pulls, emergency exits, and fire escapes, including their service dates. They also had to post a rather large placard displaying the information on each floor of the building. In the revised legislation, this information can be emailed to tenants.

The location of fire safety equipment still has to be communicated—whether in person, in writing, or by email—but it doesn’t have to be in map form, unless that is how the owner prefers to pass the information along. This change really alleviates the difficulty of this requirement. Before, owners had to provide maps detailing every smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector in each individual unit—this was difficult in larger buildings with multiple units with different floor plans. Building owners still have to communicate to tenants where they can find the fire safety devices in their unit, how to confirm that they are working, and when the devices were last changed.

Pam McElroy: Is there any part of the legislation revision that is still being worked on?

Ken Cofflin: In the original legislation, owners of buildings with 16 or more units were required to provide tenants with in-person fire safety training, but the legislation didn’t address how this should happen and landlords couldn’t control whether tenants would even show up to the training. New legislation replaced the in-person training with an online fire safety video.

The fire department is finishing up that safety video, which tenants can watch in lieu of the in-person onsite training. The video will be hosted on the fire department’s website, and it will be specifically geared toward San Francisco. We think this is a win-win. Instead of providing the in-person training, building owners can now just include a link to the training video on their fire safety disclosure form, and tenants can watch it at their leisure and replay it any time. Soon the video will also be available in Chinese, Spanish, and Filipino.

Pam McElroy: Was the fire department involved in writing the legislation or the revisions to the legislation?

Ken Cofflin: After the supervisors wrote the original legislation, they referred the bill to the various city departments—the Department of Building Inspection, SF Planning, the fire department, housing, et cetera. The departments gave feedback.

For the 2017 revision, Fire Marshall Dan deCossio and I met with Supervisor Tang and her staff in her office to discuss the legislation revisions. We provided comments on what we thought could help her achieve her legislative goal more effectively.

Pam McElroy: Are you happy with the revision? Is there anything else you would like to change?

Ken Cofflin: I don’t think the legislation needs any more work. I think it meets the intent of the original legislation—which was to provide more fire safety information to tenants—but now it doesn’t put an unduly burden on owners. Building owners don’t have to purchase anything; it’s just about notifying tenants.

Building owners still have to notify tenants annually, but the information usually doesn’t change. It’s probably the same information every year. The information provided reassures tenants that their smoke alarms are not expired, and reminds owners to check the expiration dates and replace them when necessary.

Pam McElroy: Is there anything in the legislation or fire code that regulates the minimum battery life for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in rental units?

Ken Cofflin: In the state of California, smoke alarms are no longer manufactured with anything less than a ten-year battery. So if you have an existing smoke alarm with a nine-volt battery, and you want to continue changing the battery annually, you can. But eventually that smoke detector will expire, and it will have to be replaced with a smoke alarm equipped with a ten-year battery.

Pam McElroy: What are the requirements for fire extinguishers? Is there a specific kind of fire extinguisher required in rental buildings, or one that the fire department recommends?

Ken Cofflin: The fire code and fire legislation don’t require a specific kind of fire extinguisher for all occupancies. It all comes down to the different hazard types. There are three different types of fire extinguishers: water fire extinguishers, dry chemical fire extinguishers, and carbon dioxide (CO2) fire extinguishers. And there are different fire types (A, B and C): Class “A” fires include common combustibles, like trash, paper and plastic. Class “B” fires are liquid fires like those caused by cooking oil on a hot stove or spilled gasoline in a garage. Class “C” fires involve electrical equipment, like toasters or microwaves.

The red colored fire extinguishers—the ones that are about 18 inches tall—that people are most familiar with are “ABC” fire extinguishers. These extinguishers contain a dry chemical and meet all parts of the code. The 2A10B:C is the most common fire extinguisher and is good for about 3,000 square feet of space.

Per the fire code, there must be a fire extinguisher accessible in all buildings. So, a person should be able to locate a fire extinguisher in a building while traveling no more than 75 feet. This isn’t a part of the San Francisco legislation; this is a part of the fire code. The San Francisco legislation mandates that building owners tell tenants where these fire extinguishers can be found, so tenants don’t have to go looking around for them.

Pam McElroy: In summary, by January 2018 and every year thereafter, building owners must provide tenants with the fire safety disclosure, which details the location and service dates of the building’s fire-safety equipment, and also a link to the upcoming fire safety training video. Is this the only deadline that they need to worry about?

Ken Cofflin: Per Supervisor Tang’s legislation, yes. Per Campos’s legislation, building owners must also submit a signed and completed Statement of Compliance to the San Francisco Fire Department every two years. The fire department will scan and post the document and make it publicly available. The document lists the name of the fire alarm company that serviced the building, the devices tested, and when it was certified. The first deadline was last year for buildings with nine or more units. The first deadline for buildings with fewer than nine units is this year, on January 31.

Detailed information and templates are available at sf-fire.org.

Pam McElroy: Is there anything else you’d like to add that you think property owners and managers should be aware of?

Ken Cofflin: The original legislation mandated that a building’s contact phone number be displayed adjacent to the front door of buildings, so housing and fire inspectors can easily and quickly gain entrance to complete their inspection. This hasn’t changed and is still required.
The fire alarm sleeping area requirements also haven’t changed. NFPA’s standard is that new residential fire alarms must be heard at 75 decibels at the pillow. Per the fire code, all new fire alarm systems that are installed must meet this standard.

As for existing fire alarm systems in R2 buildings (residential non-transient buildings), the Board of Supervisor’s legislation require that these systems must be upgraded to meet the 2013 NFPA sound requirement by July 1, 2021. All R2 buildings that have a fire alarm system must comply with the upgrade. This upgrade will typically involve adding a horn or a speaker in sleeping areas.

If a building permit is filed for construction of $50,000 or more, it will trigger the mandatory alarm system upgrade before the 2021 deadline. In addition, new legislation will require that the sale or transfer of a building (after September 1, 2017) will also trigger the mandatory fire alarm system upgrade.

Currently, Supervisor Peskin is working on legislation so that a building’s mandatory seismic retrofit work costing more than $50,000 will not trigger the fire alarm system upgrade. This way, building owners complying with the mandatory seismic work won’t be double-hit. But no matter what, R2 buildings will need upgraded fire alarm systems by July 1, 2021.

Ken Cofflin is the San Francisco Port Fire Marshall. Pam McElroy is the editor of
SF Apartment Magazine.