Bureau of Fire Prevention, Wave of the Future
By Terry Smith
The San Francisco Fire Depart-ments, Bureau of Fire Prevention (BFP) does not command the high visibility and glamour that suppression firefighting characterizes. None the less, the BFP has gained significant prominence in recent years because of its huge workload in dealing with the major boom in construction within San Francisco. Fire Dept. Administration has traditionally looked at this bureau as an afterthought during budget when monies have been allotted to increase personnel, equipment, and conditions. The new administration has promised to evaluate the bureaus burden. In tight budget times, the BFP is little effected because we are a revenue producing division. A closer review of the history, duties, goals, and future of this unheralded bureau reveals a mission and service the whole fire department should encompass.


The bureau of fire prevention was created by the 1932 City Charter in which inspections were performed by a skeleton staff. After WWII during Chiefs Walsh’s reign a staff of ten running out of the bottom of City Hall began to record data on fire code violations. The main function of the bureau was to establish a baseline of all high-rise structures, schools, businesses, and buildings which posed a district hazard, encumbrance, or condition which inhibited our firefighting operations. Through field inspection, recordation, and incorporation of old operations. Through field inspection, recordation, and incorporation of old Sanborn maps, a hard file has been established on properties which contain fire protection devices, hazardous materials, and previous violations or citations of fire code. With a baseline established it became incumbent upon inspectors to keep compliant buildings up to code and to consult and inspect newly constructed buildings. The permit program once part of BBI was rightfully brought into our division.

The BFP expanded and took on an increased role in the 60s under Cpt. George Ryst with the implementation of the state fire marshals mandate to all county jurisdictions to inspect schools, public institutions, residential and day care facilities. Fire Marshal Charlie Carli ran the division in the mid 70s as depicted in the adjacent picture. An increasing role was played by Fire Marshals, Emmett Condon and William Graham in the 70’s and 80’s. These developers of the BFP realized the need for High Rise Programs, increased code enforcement, C.R.I.S.P., and fee structures for services.

During the early years, firefighters took tests to become inspectors but reluctantly forestalled appointment to the end of their careers to gain the promotional raise before retirement. The dreaded strike of 1975 resulted in the retirement of ten inspectors and consequently new inspectors from the field were hired in a hodge podge manor until a test was conducted in the late 1970s. Another test was held in 1989 and the last test given in 1996. As of March of this year no new test is planned and the Chief of Department has hire inspectors as per PQFs (Personal qualification Form). The Adminstration of the Fire Department, under Chief Cresci decided they might save some money by hiring civilian inspectors in the 1980s, subsequently 20 Fire Safety Inspectors were hired from Civil Service which took away the opportunity of 20 firefighters from the field attaining those positions. The Fire Department didn’t save a dime, as the Fire Safety Inspectors receive the same salary as regular inspectors. The professionalism all inspectors maintain is without reproach, as their daily work with the public portrays the diligence, experience, and education it takes to accomplish the job.

Organizational Chart

The Bureau of Fire Prevention is headed by the Fire Marshal, A.C. Gary Massetani, and consists of 5 captains, 5 lieutenants, 17 fire safety inspectors, 23 fire inspectors, 3 fire protection engineers, 1 community affairs officer, and 5 clerical personnel.

The BFP is broken into fire prevention programs critical in creating, protecting, recording, and educating the public about fire codes and regulations. Those programs are: Plan Checking, Permits, High Rise, Hazardous Materials, Schools, Hospital / Residential Care Facilities, Day Care Facilities, R-1 Program, District Inspectors, Accelerated Code Enforcement, Code Development, Public Education, Airport Fire Prevention, Port Fire Marshal, and Treasure Island-Hunters Point Development Team.


First and foremost of any duty within the SFFD is to serve the public. Unbeknownst to most, the exposure and good will of the fire department starts with the BFP. All general phone calls to the fire department on a non-emergency basis are handled through our general phone number (558-3300).

BFP personnel are the ones who route your calls to the Chief, doctor, assignments, district inspectors, etc. The public constantly is questioning our people about code questions, but we field many unrelated questions about earthquakes, plumbing, current events and more commonly, “where a street in San Francisco is located?”

Plan Check

The offices of the Plan Check are located at 1660 Mission St. where blueprints for all new buildings, tenant improvements, demolitions, and additional fire suppression systems are reviewed and hopefully approved. All plans are scrutinized to the current U.B.C., S.F. Fire Code, S.F. Housing Code, C.B.C., C.F.C., and various codes from N.F.P.A. and applicable regulations. People submitting plans must pay fees for the plan check service.


Permit section is a comprehensive section which is responsible for the administration, evaluation, inspection, and issuance for 55 activities regulated by the Municipal Code.

High Rise

The State Health and Safety Code mandates that all high rise buildings be inspected annually. There are over 550 high rises in the city. The inspectors assigned to this task not only inspect the fire suppression features of the building but attend fire drills, assist in floor evacuation plans, maintain a working relationship with building managers and engineers and make presentations to occupants.


There are over 200 schools, pubic and private, that have to be inspected on an annual basis by state law. Monthly fire drills are routinely documented by company officers and Battalion Chiefs and forwarded to the school inspector if any problems exist. Violations and abatements are scrutinized by this inspector and the SFUSD safety director.

Hazardous Materials

The hazardous materials section is located with the Health Dept. Code Section at the Fox Plaza Building. One inspector is assigned to assist the public in researching and permitting hazardous materials, tank removals and placements, and toxic site removals and investigations.

Hospital / Residential Care Facilities

State law requires clearance on these types of facilities, which differ slightly from S.F.F.C. Our fire codes are more stringent and contain methods applicable to our fire safety programs, hence fire suppression units can readily attack any conflagration or emergency with assurance that life safety requirements are up to our standards.

Day Care Facilities

With the advent in the 70s of dual roles of parents in the home and workplace; Day Care Facilities became prominent. The Day Care Facility Inspector is responsible for all inspections of these facilities and to consult with owners on fire code regulations pertaining to such. The inspector is a liaison with the State on fire clearances and is available for Public Education Presentations. There are over 500 facilities to be checked.

R-1 Program

This is the extension of the Home Survey Program of the 60s and the C.R.I.S.P. program of the 70s and 80s. The field suppression units are the backbone of this program, wherein most R-1 and commercial buildings are inspected. The field company relies on the form transmitted from the R-1 inspector to be documented and sent for recordation at BFP. Any egregious violation is transferred to a district inspector for follow up. The field inspection is a valuable tool to firefighters in the knowledge they obtain of fire protection systems, but more importantly the information they obtain pertaining to the inspected building is used for future strategies in fire suppression.

District Inspectors

The backbone of this bureau is the district inspectors, who answer the publics concern over possible fire code violations. Consultation and actual written violations are performed by these inspectors. A key function of the district inspector is to inspect and grant final clearance to all building projects permitted through plan check. It is incumbent on inspectors to recognize any flaws in original blueprint approval, to the completion and testing of all fire safety devices. Currently there are 13 district inspectors whom are also cross-trained in other aspects of fire prevention programs. These inspectors are also called upon to respond to fires and other emergencies while in their districts.

Accelerated Code Enforcement

Lieutenant Callaghan, (not Clint Eastwood) runs this section. All egregious S.F.F.C. violations which are not responded to by owners of property are reported to this section. A task force consisting of the City Attorney, Housing and Building Depts, Health and Police Departments is formed to inspect the owners property in violation. Abatement is the goal of this section; if not, the task force presents a persuasive case to civil court usually resulting in heavy fines to owners in violation.

Code Development

The code development section is handled by Captain Harvey with assistance from several members of plan check. He constantly confers with building, electrical, planning, health and plumbing departments on new codes and dual responsibilities of departments. Captain Harvey represents the department on several levels in state and nationwide codes and promulgation of ordinances. He collaborates with the Fire Marshal on any addition or deletion of S.F.F.C.

The Public Education

Formerly, an inspector had this position, but was converted to the Community Affairs Officer under the Demmons Administration. The officer provides public education to any group requiring such. The program is especially geared towards pre-schoolers, elementary schools, juvenile fire setters and the indigent. Innumerable amounts of pamphlets, and educational materials are available through this office. The officer works closely with the BFP personnel in targeting areas of prevention.

Airport Fire Prevention

A dynamic force in recent years, The San Francisco International Airport has tripled in size leading to an enormous workload. The master plan for the airport is barely half way completed with B.A.R.T., The original terminal, and hotel row to be completed in the future. Two officers, two inspectors, and one fire safety inspector must issue permits, review, approve, and inspect all building plans, conduct hazardous materials inspections, health department referrals, and train airport personnel in various prevention techniques indicative to the airport situation.

Port Fire Marshal

Captain Ken Cereghino is the Port Fire Marshall. He handles all building and tenant improvement plans to be constructed on port property. He is in charge of issuing permits on port property. He acts as a liaison for all special codes applicable to seaworthy vessels and adjoining wharfs, sheds and piers. He handles public assembly permits and special events like the X games. In otherwards, for one guy handling waterfront property from Aquatic Park to Hunters Point; that is a full plate.

Treasure Island/Hunters Point Development Team

A new inspector and lieutenant have been appointed to oversee the development of all building plans, hazardous material sites, fire department roads and connections, water source problems, etc. at these two areas reclaimed from the United States Navy.

Dignitary Details

Plans are devised when dignitaries are in town for emergency evacuation from their hotels. Inspectors are assigned to monitor life safety systems, provide alternate safety plans, and have a broad knowledge and experience with interdisciplinary agencies.

Future of the BFP

It is clearly described in previous paragraphs the mission this bureau has on a daily basis. With the current Mayoral Administration pushing to be a service-orientated department, BFP has courteously responded to the publics need.

Unfortunately, we can only deal with adversity by the tools we are blessed.

Due to a lack of hiring and the overwhelming number of permits submitted; we have fallen behind in our goal to speed up the process in plan checking. A scramble for adequate motor vehicles for transportation of inspectors is gradually coming to fruition after years of neglect. A promised computer system for data entry of all inspections, hard data, permits, etc. has never been realized. We are still on 1975 Wang System. Most jurisdictions have lap top computers for field inspection data entry and code interpretation.

The need is urgent to hire four people to fill vacant positions. With the expertise attained by BFP personnel in several areas it is crucial new personnel meet the profile of an experienced inspector. One who not only has State Fire Marshalls courses in Fire Prevention, but one who has wide background in construction, code interpretation, and most importantly firefighting experience. Firefighting experience is crucial because one who works in BFP is ultimately providing the tools needed in fire suppression. We feel firefighters in the field with vast suppression experience understand the tools of their trade and we at BFP are providing those tools for you to do your job. One must know the rudimentary procedures in testing life safety devices, such as, all devices associated in a fire alarm panel and how to locate such, the function of the device, and why it is located in such a place. If you haven’t had the experience of testing standpipes and sprinklers, basics in hydraulics, and “where are these systems required?” Your knowledge isn’t vast enough for this job. We need people in this job that know what to do in an emergency situation as we provide evacuation plans for life safety buildings. We need people with experience who can read shop drawing and detect a contractors change in plans without any permit approval. (Example) The other day a sprinkler contractor substituted approved plan 3” riser pipe with 2” pipe; hoping not to get caught. Same guy put a soffit in a room which was not on plans which obstructed sprinkler coverage, created dead space, and increased hydraulic calculations. No one taught any inspector at the BFP how to spot those misgiven actions; we learned them through our own volition from previous trade jobs, experienced firefighters, and through education courses paid for out of our own pockets.

The future of the BFP in terms of projects in the field is mind boggling. Major projects include the 100 acre Mission Bay Project, the five year Airport Project, The Ferry Building, The Hunters Point-Treasure Island build outs, many South of Market high rise projects, Asian Arts Museum, De Young Museum, and Bloomingdales. These projects will increase our workload ever more and indirectly effects field suppression, because field units have to gain knowledge of these buildings and the people they serve.

An important part of this whole budget in the BFP is that we create our own fee structure which funds the bureau. The amount of fees BFP takes in versus the salaries paid out is a virtual wash. We collect fees for most all programs mentioned in the above treatise. Overtime inspections are paid by the contractor and have no bearing on the SFFD budget. There are other sources of revenue the BFP produces (violations, citations, court judgements) that rightfully should be returned to our budget, however no previous administration has had the perspicacity to adopt an ordinance to apply such. Consequently, these monies, over $100,000 last year, go into the general fund.

We feel with strong backing from the new administration, excellent communication with field suppression units, and the current group of hard working inspectors, the BFP will be recognized as a vital part of the team we all respect as the San Francisco Fire Department.

Note: This article was submitted in March but due to publication glitches could not be printed until this issue.

Bureau of Fire Prevention and Investigation circa October 6, 1977

Photo provided by Terry Smith


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