San Francisco Fire Department to challenge fines in firefighters' deaths

Examiner file photoThe San Francisco Fire Department faces $21

Fire Department officials say they will challenge $21,000 in state fines for safety violations during a June blaze that resulted in the deaths of two firefighters.

The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health notified the department of the “serious” violations on Nov. 25, but fire officials said Friday that they plan to appeal the findings, which conflict with an internal investigation that is still under way.

The Cal OSHA report found that outside radio contact was not continuously maintained with Lt. Vincent Perez, 48, and firefighter-paramedic Anthony Valerio, 53, when they were inside the house fire in The City’s hilly Diamond Heights neighborhood on June 2. Fire officials also failed to have adequate backup on scene and did not establish the required incident command system outside the house, the report found.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said although the internal investigation likely won’t be completed until early next month, the OSHA results don’t jibe with what fire officials noted in reports.

“We did have others on scene,” Hayes-White said.

Firefighters union President Tom O’Connor said Cal OSHA appears to be unfairly applying suburban standards to an urban firefighting style that sometimes requires engines to move in one after another and attack a blaze as personnel arrive.

“We fight fires differently,” O’Connor said, adding that many are anxiously waiting for the department’s internal investigation to understand the facts of the case. “It’s very easy to Monday morning quarterback it. Decisions were made in a split second and whether they were right or wrong, we won’t know until an investigation comes out.”

Hayes-White said the loss of radio connection might have been caused by melted cords, which the department has asked manufacturer Motorola to evaluate. Shortly after the incident, officials said what began as a minor electrical fire grew quickly and eventually created an intense “flashover” of heat and flames.

Hayes-White noted that the OSHA report does not indicate that the violations were directly to blame for the injuries that resulted in the deaths of the two men.

She said operational policy changes could be in order if the internal investigation warrants them.

“We owe it to anyone involved to try and be as comprehensive and thoughtful as possible,” Hayes-White said. “We will be following through if we feel there are deficiencies.”

The chief said a conference between OSHA officials and the department is scheduled for this week, with a formal appeal to follow. At the request of the department shortly after the incident, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is also conducting an independent investigation, which is expected to be released in a few months.

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

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