CITY OF S. B. FIRE PREVENTION AND INSPECTION
Released: June 7, 1996
The Grand Jury began this investigation by inquiring into the governmental operations of the City of Santa Barbara. As a result of a citizen complaint and media coverage of a fire at the California Hotel, the Grand Jury focused its investigation on the Santa Barbara City Fire Department (SBFD) with emphasis on fire prevention and inspection.
To determine the effectiveness of the SBFD fire prevention and inspection policies, methods, code enforcement and documentation.
The Grand Jury conducted interviews with the following:
ORGANIZATION AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE SBFD
The SBFD consists of 119 employees (See Exhibit A, Santa Barbara City Fire Department Organization Chart.) The SBFD has a budget of approximately $10 million per fiscal year which does not include capital expenditures. Capital expenditures are a part of the Santa Barbara City budget. The department is headed by a Fire Chief who reports to the City Administrator. Reporting to the Chief are an Assistant Chief/Fire Marshal who heads the Prevention Division, an Assistant Chief who heads the Operation Division and an Administration Services Manager who heads the Administration Division.
The Fire Prevention Division is responsible for follow-up of referrals from engine companies, biennial inspections for airport commercial properties, arson investigations, building plan checks, departmental inspection training, public education, complaint investigation, compliance follow-up and target hazards inspections.
The Operation Division is responsible for fire suppression, inspections of all commercial occupancies (except airport properties), fire suppression training plus several other tasks. There are eight stations staffed 24 hours a day, including a special crash and rescue unit at the airport. The SBFD responds to approximately 7,000 calls a year and about 64% of these calls are for medical assistance.
The Administration Division is responsible for budget preparation and monitoring, payroll, purchasing, building maintenance, major construction, computer operations, public relations and other administrative functions.
Regular systematic inspections of each commercial occupancy within the corporate limits of the City shall be conducted at least biennially1 by engine company personnel within the Operation Division. “Target Occupancy” (high risk properties, i.e. hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) are inspected semi-annually.
The commercial and high risk occupancies are divided among each of the three engine company shifts. Each Company Captain is responsible for all aspects of the inspections within his inspection district. Inspection districts are not necessarily the same as the fire suppression districts because of commercial property concentration. The Santa Barbara City Fire Department Prevention Manual states that “Battalion Chiefs shall be responsible for the uniform application of the rules and regulations, and to insure that reasonable progress is being made by all companies on their shifts toward completion of the prescribed programs”.
For each commercial property, inspection files are established and maintained by the applicable engine company. Each file consists of:
When an inspection is scheduled, the index card is pulled for the address to be inspected. The engine company records the inspection results on the cards and notes any changes to the business or building. On returning to the station, the engine company manually records the inspection results and any other new information in property files on the inspection records log. The files are then returned to the file cabinet and the index card is returned to the card file box. The Santa Barbara City Fire Department Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) mandates that when a file is taken out of the file cabinet, an “Out Card” should be placed in the missing file space indicating the location of the file. The Grand Jury observed that not all missing files had “Out Cards.”
There are no standard check lists used for routine inspections. Each Company Captain has a fair amount of latitude in how the inspections are performed. Violations, if any, are noted on a FSIN form. Documentation of an inspection often is nothing more than a brief note on the Inspection Records Log. For example, if there were no violations noted, the entry would be “ No Recs.” The original of the FSIN is given to the occupant or manager of the property inspected. The property owner does not receive a copy unless he or she is an occupant or manager. Except for life threatening hazards, there must be compliance within a specified time, consistent with the severity of the violation (not to exceed 10 working days). Life threatening hazards must be attended to immediately. At the end of the 10 working days, the inspecting engine company returns to verify compliance. The Company Captain has the discretion to allow additional time for compliance, if he is satisfied the responsible party is making a valid attempt to comply with the violation. This should not exceed an additional 10 working days.2
The Grand Jury inspected records which indicated that the time between notification of violation and compliance has far exceeded the 20 days without referral to Fire Prevention. SOP states that after 20 days of noncompliance, the engine company should refer the case to the SBFD Fire Prevention Division. Activities such as fires, training, shift scheduling, and community activities may preclude fire personnel from adhering to this schedule. If a case is referred to the Fire Prevention Division, the entire file is given to the Fire Prevention Division and an “Out Card” is placed in the engine company’s file to explain its absence.
Engine Company #6 performed a biennial inspection of the California Hotel on April 11, 1994. The inspection records log has the following entry - “No recs.” A FSIN was prepared for the Dolphin Tavern (same building, same day) showing code violations. There were no written comments for the restaurant in the same building.
A fire was reported at the California Hotel on the evening of May 18, 1995. The Battalion Chief, who responded to the fire, noted that the fire alarm system was inoperable. In his inter-office memo, he directed the hotel night clerk to “...immediately notify the SAS Alarm Co. and have the alarm system placed back into service. I told the (clerk) that if SAS was unable to restore the fire protection systems before nightfall, that he (the clerk) was to contact a private security service and provide a ‘fire watch’ to remain on scene until the fire protection system was restored.”3 While returning to quarters, the Battalion Chief phoned the Supervising Inspector of the Fire Prevention Division to advise the Supervising Inspector of the situation. His actions were agreed with and he was told that follow up would be provided in the morning. The case was assigned to an inspector, who visited the site the next day (May 19, 1995).
The inspector conducted an investigation with the hotel assistant manager and orally made it clear that the alarm system and fire doors had to be fixed immediately. He stated that he would be back within a few days to check on the progress. There is no evidence that the inspector did return. There is no written documentation in the file of a visit by the inspector. Testimony indicated there were various phone contacts between the inspector, the assistant hotel manager and the hotel property manager over the next three months. However, there is no documentation in the file to support these phone contacts. It was not until the end of August 1995 that a “walk-thru” inspection was conducted by the inspector. There was still no written documentation by any SBFD personnel. The Grand Jury was told that the inspector was busy with an arson investigation. The California Hotel case was not reassigned to another inspector. The Grand Jury was told by the inspector assigned to the case and other SBFD personnel that they were satisfied with the progress and cooperation of the hotel property manager.
A citizen’s complaint regarding fire code violations at the California Hotel was filed with the city Community Development Department on August 15, 1995. A Community Development Department inspector inspected the site on August 16, 1995. A building permit was issued to the California Hotel on September 19, 1995 to correct the electrical problems observed in prior inspections. This work began but was not completed until January 1996.
When the Grand Jury began this investigation and inquired as to the progress of the various violations reported, it was informed of a tacit agreement among building inspectors not to consecutively pursue other violations if one was being currently corrected. This practice results in extending overall compliance time.
In mid-October, 1995, the Santa Barbara News-Press began an investigation of the California Hotel fire and code violations. An investigative reporter began interviewing SBFD personnel. On October 27, 1995, the Fire Prevention Division reassigned the California Hotel case to another inspector. The new inspector was directed to perform a complete fire investigation of the California Hotel immediately. Ten violations of the Uniform Fire Code Ordinance #4771 and Titles 19 and 24 of the California Code of Regulations4 were found. The newly assigned inspector maintained a well documented account of the inspection and follow up. Although the California Hotel is still not in complete compliance, as of the date of this report, the new inspector has done everything necessary to move things along as quickly as possible and has documented progress every step of the way.
Other Specific Observations
The Grand Jury made random inspections of city fire stations to make visual checks of the physical conditions of the stations and to make spot checks of their files. In a significant number of cases the routine fire inspections had not been carried out in the prescribed time span. For example, “Operation Fire Stop - A periodic inspection program to assure maintenance of life safety features and safe exiting in public assembly occupancies” lists businesses targeted for Public Assembly Occupancy inspections. They are to be inspected once a quarter, according to SOP 206.07. The Grand Jury observed that a theater was last inspected on November 26, 1994. In addition, a restaurant and bowling alley have not been inspected since June 9, 1995.
The Grand Jury followed one particular case. On a visit to a station the Grand Jury was present for a fire call. The Grand Jury went to the scene to witness the actual process of fighting a fire. There was an odor of smoke reported at a cleaning establishment. The cause of the smoke was determined to be from a charred wall and studs located immediately adjacent to a steam boiler unit. An inspector from Fire Prevention was called and arrived promptly. This inspector in turn contacted a building official since this was a potential building code violation. The boiler is located six inches from an interior wall and the Building Code required a distance of 24 inches. (The Fire Department’s Incident Report indicated immediate action was taken.) This violation was not documented on the previous FSIN dated December 9, 1993 as per SOP 204.01. This was the last documented inspection of this building. At that time other violations in the “boiler room” were cited and subsequently corrected.
The SBFD has a national Insurance Service Organization (ISO) rating of two, on a scale of one to ten, one being the best. Most fire departments in the nation are periodically rated by the ISO and certification is valid for eight years. The SBFD has six years remaining in the current rating. Of the many categories inspected by ISO, not one of those categories addresses fire prevention.
The SOP for Fire Prevention is basically well stated; however, there is a great need for standardized wording. The Grand Jury noted many instances when the SOP was not followed at all. These deficiencies appear to be given a low priority by management.
As a result of the California Hotel fire, the Santa Barbara Fire Department has implemented a quality assurance program for fire prevention/inspection, which will take effect on July l, 1996 as stated in SOP 204.02. In part, “To accomplish this the Battalion Chiefs will pull one or two recent inspections from that sub-district files and do a walk through in that occupancy. The findings will be reviewed with that crew. If there are problems with the inspections, the Battalion Chief may pull additional inspections for review.” It should be noted a letter dated April 17, 1996, from the Fire Chief is inconsistent with the wording of SOP 204.02 dated November 10, 1995. During the last month a referral system has been implemented to update engine companies on the status of their referrals to the Fire Prevention Division.
The Grand Jury was told that there is no computerized record management system. The Grand Jury discussions with the SBFD management, the Santa Barbara City Data Processing Manager and Finance Director indicate that the effort to replace the existing Macintosh computers with a state-of-the-art PC based network has begun. A “Fire Department Network Configuration” has been proposed by the Santa Barbara Data Processing Department. Sources of funding from this year’s (FY 1996) budget have been identified. The Grand Jury was told that there may be enough funding to purchase the hardware and the initial software required. However, the SBFD has not followed up with a requisition to Data Processing to purchase the equipment and software. Until such time, Data Processing cannot schedule the purchase and installation.
The Grand Jury was informed in interviews that there is an immediate need to design and/or purchase a software system to work throughout the entire SBFD.
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
FINDING 1: The SBFD would benefit from a computerized record management system.
RECOMMENDATION 1: The Grand Jury urges the SBFD, in conjunction with the City Data Processing Department and Finance Department, to proceed as rapidly as possible with the acquisition of the “Fire Department Network Configuration” and the parallel design and/or purchase of a total software system. This system should: