Tension mounts over fire code

A safety measure for firefighters working in high-rise buildings will become the focal point of a debate over The City’s new fire codes, which are due to be updated by the end of this year.

During a demonstration Wednesday of Rescue Air Systems — which provides an air supply for firefighters working in high-rises to refill their oxygen tanks without having to go all the way downstairs — a debate flared between Anthony Turiello, the system’s inventor and vendor, and Barbara Schulthies, the City’s fire marshal.

Schulthies, who arranged the writing of the new code, said she does not support a requirement of a self-contained air system such as Rescue Air’s, because it is not codified under national or state fire regulations.

“Our concern is, if you put in this elaborate system, that system is going to sit for maybe 30 years without being used and if it does need to be used, in the case of some bizarre, unlikely emergency, who wants to breathe the air off of that system?” Schultheis said.

On Aug. 23, the San Francisco Fire Commission passed a new version of the San Francisco fire code, which would remove the requirement for Rescue Air, replacing it with fire-resistant elevators that could carry firefighters and their equipment to the upper floors of high-rise buildings.

Turillo said the move to nix firefighter air systems from the San Francisco fire code stems from a 1997 patent-violation lawsuit his company won against construction giant Webcor, a Building Owners and Managers Association constituent.

But proponents of the new code, including BOMA, claim Turiello is to blame for the code resistance.

“The real problem is you’ve got somebody who’s using the Board of Supervisors and the political process to guarantee some guy’s patent is going to be used in new construction,” BOMA official Ken Cleaveland said Wednesday.

The new code, which is due to go before the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use Committee, has drawn the ire of Firefighters Local 798.

“There must be some sort of air supply in a 100-story building,” union President John Hanley said outside the Fillmore Heritage Jazz Building, where the demonstration took place Wednesday.

The elevators, however, are also new and relatively untested. Hanley pointed out that elevators alone may not provide enough access to fresh air. He advocated for both systems.

amartin@examiner.com

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