Inspecting the inspectors
A new civil grand jury report says Coastside Fire Protection District is among those in the county that hasn't performed all the safety inspections required by law. Review file photo

A civil grand jury report revealed several fire departments in San Mateo County — including the Coastside Fire Protection District — are failing to conduct health and safety inspections as required by state law.

The Coastside fire department is one of seven fire departments in the county the report highlighted for failing to conduct at least 90 percent of state-mandated building inspections from 2015 to 2018. The grand jury reported its findings last week.

California law requires all fire agencies to conduct annual safety inspections of all public and private schools, apartments, condos, hotels and motels within their jurisdictions. Earlier this year departments were required to submit a report on those inspections.

After the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland in 2016, local officials found a number of conditions contributed to the disaster, including a lack of fire inspections of the building. Afterward, the Bay Area News Group investigated several Bay Area fire departments, and found many fire departments failed to perform all of their required inspections.

News coverage prompted state Sen. Jerry Hill to introduce Senate Bill 1205 that now requires annual reports on safety inspections be made to administering authorities, such as city council or fire district board. Officials say safety inspections are crucial fire prevention work that can identify potential hazards before they occur.

In its investigation, the grand jury reviewed inspection data and also conducted several interviews with department staff. The report found, among other things, the Coastside district does not have written policies and procedures applicable to mandated annual inspection obligations. There is an inspection policy, but it lacks specificity, according to the report.

Additionally, the CFPD uses a paper filing system to track inspections, which can delay accessing up-to-date information. The district was also advised to reassess staffing for inspections.

CFPD Board President Gary Burke said he became aware of the lapse of attention given to inspections a few years ago.

“Whether it was a matter of not reporting them or they were not being done, either way, it should not have happened,” Burke said.

CFPD increased inspections from 36 percent of those required in 2017 to 91 percent in 2018, according to the report. Overall, the 10 fire departments examined for the report showed improvement in 2018 compared to earlier years.

At the July 24 fire district board meeting, Burke said the directors voted to hire a deputy fire marshal to address the need.

“Right now we are using qualified consultants to do the inspections,” Burke said.

Gary Silva, current fire marshal for the district, and the new position of deputy fire marshal will work to complete mandated inspections along with hired consultants.

Burke also noted the importance of transitioning record keeping from a paper system to an electronic one.

“It is something we are looking at doing in the immediate future, but what it looks like I do not know yet,” Burke said.

Hill thanked the grand jury for its investigation.

“This proactive move in response to SB 1205 fosters the engagement and awareness that’s needed to achieve full compliance with the state mandate for annual inspections,” Hill said in a prepared statement. “I also applaud the departments and districts in our county that have had a consistent record of high compliance, and note that improvements have occurred in several other departments in the past year.”

The grand jury outlined several recommendations for all 10 fire departments to meet going forward to comply with the newly enacted legislation. They include asking the fire departments or districts to set guidelines for what will be submitted in the annual report and for the report to be made public.

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