San Francisco officials fear false alarms from bioterrorism detectors 

Devices detecting anthrax and other bioterrorism agents are being marketed to building owners, raising concerns among city officials who are worried about the cost of responding to false alarms.

Responding to a false biological agent detector could cost The City up to $700,000 and cause possible “civil unrest, business disruptions, prolonged facility closure, and mental health consequences,” according to legislation introduced Tuesday by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu.

He said The City needs to regulate such devices, as has been proposed in New York City, as detection services are being marketed to companies, building owners and public institutions.

“Many of these devices have not been tested, have not been set to any national standards, and could create false alarms,” Chiu said. “There have been false alarms in other parts of the country that have led to unnecessary responses.

“In a post-9/11 world, we need to be safe and we need to make sure that we don’t create unnecessary public alarm when there is no need,” Chiu said.

City officials do not know how many buildings in The City currently have such detectors.

Chiu’s legislation would require anyone with a detector to register it with The City and pay an annual fee — $1,700 for the first device and $200 for additional ones. If the bill passes, those who have the devices would have 90 days to register them.

False alarm penalties could be as high as $10,000.

The proposal was recommended by the Department of Public Health, which said there are hundreds of companies marketing detection devices costing anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands.

The Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco has taken a “neutral” position on the legislation, but expressed concerns about the costs and the complexity of the permitting process.

“They are trying to mitigate city costs,” building association representative John Bozeman said. “We’re concerned about property owners being on the hook.”

The association does not know how many buildings have detectors, but said it’s possible tenants would request the devices if they thought there was a need.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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