Does new fire code give S.F. any breathing room? 

As San Francisco builds toward the sky, some firefighters worry that crucial safety standards may be nixed from building plans under new city codes.

The emergency air supply required in tall buildings to provide oxygen to firefighters working on upper floors could be replaced in new skyscrapers by a fireproof elevator that can carry up fresh air tanks, under new fire code passed by the San Francisco Fire Commission last week.

But some in the department say that entrusting the security of firefighters’ air supply to a traditionally non-fire-safe apparatus such as an elevator will risk firefighters’ safety. With a host of high-rise developments in varying stages of planning, including proposed towers at the Transbay Terminal and Treasure Island, the question of how to plan for the worst is a pressing one.

On July 12, fire Marshal Barbara Schultheis introduced to the San Francisco Fire Commission an updated set of local fire codes that included a requirement that buildings more than 200 feet taller than the tallest fire engine ladder must have a fireproof elevator to bring firefighters and their equipment to upper floors. Under the new codes, buildings that have the elevators would not be required to install an air-supply system.

"The whole purpose was to give the firefighters a means of accessing these higher buildings without having to walk up the stairs," said Capt. Thomas Harvey, who works in the Bureau of Fire Protection. He cited a study by the National Fire Protection Association that found it takes firefighters an average of two minutes per floor to climb a stairwell with their equipment.

But John Hanley, a Fire Department captain and president of San Francisco Firefighters Local 798, and Acting Captain Kevin Smith, president of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association, both expressed concern that firefighters would not want to rely on elevators.

"The union feels a compromise could have been worked out for the safety of the citizens and the firefighters," Hanley said. "They’re putting all their credibility and all their faith in an elevator. Crazy things happen in fires."

Fire Commission President Paul Conroy and Commissioner Stephen Nakajo both voted against the new codes. Conroy indicated that he only cast a no vote to allow time for further discussion. Nakajo said he supported the elevator requirement, but wanted the air supply to be a requirement as well.

"My vote was purely on the concept of safety for the firefighter in terms of being able to have access to the oxygen supply," Nakajo said. Both Nakajo and Conroy said changes can be made until it is approved by the Board of Supervisors.

The City is updating all of its fire codes to comply with state codes, which are updated every three years. The new California codes were published in July. California does not require elevators or an air supply system, but Kevin Reinerston, the supervising deputy state fire marshal, said such requirements may be part of future codes.

"Chances are the next model code we adopt will have some more provisions in it for the high-rise[s]," Reinerston said.

amartin@examiner.com

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