Fire Marshal Orders ‘Severe Safety Watch' on CPUC Building in SF

The state Fire Marshal has imposed an extraordinary fire safety order on the California Public Utilities Commission headquarters since the San Francisco building failed an inspection last month, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit has learned.

On Oct. 2, state fire inspectors found the fire alarm system to be inoperable at the commission’s Van Ness Avenue office, which serves as the meeting place for the five-member commission that oversees utility safety and rates.

The Fire Marshal inspectors discovered the sprinkler system had mechanical problems and had not been fully serviced in 18 years. And they found that an emergency exit door, which was apparently damaged during a break-in attempt, had been chained shut.

Authorities immediately ordered a “severe fire safety watch,” which requires the halls of the building be patroled around the clock until the problems are fixed.

The fact that such problems could be found at the building that houses a key state safety regulator was not missed on critics, like state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo).

“There’s certainly an irony in that,” said the senator, who has often criticized the commission for being lax on safety enforcement.

Despite the apparent gravity of the situation, CPUC officials only hinted at the problems during the commission’s Nov. 9 public meeting.

“We prioritize safety, and I’m going to outline a couple of safety concerns in this venue,” President Michael Picker announced at the start of the meeting but did not outline those concerns. Instead, he instructed the audience on how to best exit the structure and designated the executive director of the agency as the one to call 911.

But fire officials say the safety concerns Picker failed to discuss are significant.

“These are all severe violations as far as I’m concerned,” said Steve Guarino, chief of the northern division of fire and life safety for the Fire Marshal’s office.

He said that inspections conducted on Oct. 2 and Oct. 31 revealed several troubling problems. The alarm system failed a spot test due to a broken control panel. It has since been repaired and is awaiting certification.

Elsewhere, inspectors discovered cracked seals and other mechanical problems with the water pump that feeds the sprinkler system, he said. It had not been serviced since 1999 – a violation of state standards requiring servicing every five years.

But Guarino was particularly troubled by the discovery that the emergency exit doors on McAllister Street had been chained shut.

“That wasn’t good at all,” he said, adding that the chain was ordered cut on the spot.

He said overall, systems were not maintained, tested or inspected per protocols established to assure they function as designed. Many had not been checked in several years.

The violations were not lodged against the utilities commission, but rather the building managers, the state’s Department of General Services.

“The department is working closely with the CPUC and the state Fire Marshal to expedite repairs,” the agency said in a statement that went on to say the “fire-watch will remain in effect 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the repairs are complete.”

Hill said the troubling inspection findings point to a major safety breakdown that occurred under the noses PUC’s own safety regulators.

“It’s indicative of the problems that we see,” he said. “One hand doesn’t know what the other one’s doing in many cases.”

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