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Politics & Policy

San Francisco isn’t prepared for fires, tsunamis, lawmaker says

A screengrab from a video captured by the San Francisco Fire Department shows a four-alarm fire at Octavia and Fell streets in the Lower Haight on Aug. 1, 2023. | Source: Courtesy SFFD

Responding to increased concerns over fires and other disasters, San Francisco Supervisor Connie Chan is asking for new fire safety regulations for housing, as well as progress reports on major citywide safety systems. 

“San Francisco can learn much from the devastating fire disaster in Maui and the failure of preparation and emergency warning systems,” Chan said in a prepared statement, also noting that the ocean-facing Richmond neighborhood that makes up the bulk of her district “is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters like tsunamis.” 

Simulations recently produced by faculty at UC Santa Cruz predict that areas along Ocean Beach are vulnerable to flooding from a tsunami, but so is the Marina and other neighborhoods. 

Chan also referenced state mandates to build more, denser housing as another reason to reexamine the city’s safety systems. 

Chan proposed changes to the city’s fire code that would require new permits, additional training and licensing for fire sprinkler inspections. The changes would also require the installation of sprinklers in new Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), commonly known as "in-law units." They will also require divided lots to have at least 5 feet of fire service access from a public road.

Some of those changes may complicate building more ADUs as well as other kinds of new housing. For instance, fire sprinklers are not currently required in ADUs built next to a primary residence that doesn’t require a sprinkler system. 

A spokesperson for San Francisco’s Planning Department said the agency was not familiar with the legislation, but “we look forward to reading the draft legislation once it’s introduced” and that ”existing state fire requirements are extensive.” 

Housing advocates may also have some qualms about more red tape preventing housing construction. “Fire safety is important, but Supervisor Chan’s anti-housing voting record is well-known,” Corey Smith, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, told The Standard in a phone call. “So we would want to see the details and reasons for the proposed legislation.” 

In July, Chan requested a public hearing on the status of the Emergency Water Firefighting System. Chan’s office expects that hearing to happen at a meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee sometime this fall.

The system was first built shortly after the major earthquake and fire that decimated the city in 1906 and is described by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission as “our last line of defense in a fire after an earthquake.”  

A 2019 San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report found that the system provided no coverage to the Outer Richmond and Sunset districts, as well as the Bayview, leaving them “particularly vulnerable to fire damage when the next major earthquake strikes.” A $682.5 million emergency preparedness bond, including funding for improvements to the system, was approved by voters in March 2020. 

According to a presentation by utilities commission staff to a Board of Supervisors committee last June, improvements were made to facilities for the Sunset, but expansion in the Richmond and southeastern part of the city remained unfunded. Completing that work before 2046 would “require significant additional resources,” the presentation said.

“That is a huge concern of mine,” Chan told colleagues at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. 

Chan will demand that funding be restored for the Richmond extension of the water system, and also asked the Board of Supervisors to send a letter of inquiry to the San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management on the timeline for restoration of the city’s outdoor public warning system, as well as the current status of evacuation plans. 

“When I first took office, I asked about the upgrading process of the sirens,” Chan said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Four years later, we're still waiting for that answer.” 

On Aug. 24, Mayor London Breed, along with Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, announced new plans to upgrade the public warning system. 

Later in the meeting, Peskin said he was considering tapping the general fund reserve to pay for the siren upgrades, as he had heard late last week that the city had yet to identify a funding source. 

“Either show us that you have the money and where it’s coming from,” Peskin told The Standard in a phone call. “Otherwise, I’ll find the money.”