Thursday, May 24, 2012

Haight's 2011 Fire Report Posted;
But Not on SFFD Site - Transparency Needed

(Two-pages from the incident report on September 2011 blaze in the Haight.)

At the recent neighborhood meeting at the Friends School a few days after the fire at Valencia and Duboce Streets, that left dozens homeless, I asked Matthew J. McNaughton of the San Francisco Fire Department when the fire report would be ready.

McNaughton said it generally takes about thirty-days for an investigation to be completed and report filed, would be available for public inspection but not on their web site. In response to my question about such a stone age approach to public reports, he replied it's long been the policy of the department make the reports available only when someone requests it.

My curiosity as a sunshine and transparency advocate led me to file a public records request, along with a few questions, last week with the department for the report on a blaze last fall in the Haight district that attracted much media and community concern because it also displaced dozens of families and individuals. The report states the department has listed the Haight incident's cause as undetermined, and here is where I've shared the report.

Here are excerpts from my exchanges with various department officials:

MP to SFFD, May 16: I have looked all over your site for the department's final report on the cause of the fire on September 28, 2011, at the corner of Haight and Fillmore Streets. Is the report posted on your site, and if it is, how do I find it? If that report is not available for public inspection on your site, why is that the case?

SFFD reply, May 17: Your request has been received. Please allow up to 10 calendar days to receive responsive records. Thank You Public Records Officer

Chief Joanne Hayes-White reply, May 22: The Department has undertaken a diligent search in an attempt to provide any and all records that could reasonably be identified as responsive to your request for public records. [...] As a result of the search, the Department has located and is providing eight (8) pages of records which may be considered responsive to your request. Please see attached PDF file. [...] Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact the Public Records Officer.

MP reply, May 23: As you are probably aware, Chief Hayes-White has sent me the eight-page report on the fire in question last year. I wish to acknowledge receipt of this document. Also, I am still expecting a response from the public information office regarding my outstanding questions previously stated.

SFFD reply, May 23: I'm not sure if it is what you are looking for, but the Department also has databases on [...] I advise that you call to discuss your many questions - as it is a more efficient method of communication. [MP: Phone calls also don't add to building email trails!] 

MP reply, May 23: Thanks for the additional info, but I am deeply unsatisfied with all the details you sent about, which you already know does not contain incident reports. [...]

SFFD reply, May 23:

Q: Is the report on the Haight and Fillmore fire posted on your site?
A: The Fire Department does not post Fire Reports on the Website. The simple process for requesting a copy of a Fire Report is clearly posted on our website. You request, we provide! It doesn’t get more transparent than that. [MP: Transparency would be better served if taxpayers could just click on link and not have write and file requests.]

Q: If that report is not available for public inspection on your site, why is that the case?
A: This is not a new process, this is the process that has always been in place. [MP: I didn't ask if the process old or new. My request was for details about the failure to post reports to SFFD's site.]

Q: What precisely are these alleged limitations?
A: We do not post Fire Reports on our website so this is not currently an issue. [MP: The department repeats itself about how the process is fine with them, and says nothing about bandwith, a technical problem, lack of money, etc, that is the reason for the limitations on their site.]

It's my contention that the fire department needs to rethink its current inability and unwillingness to regularly make fire reports available in a click or two, on their site. These reports are of keen interest to people and businesses displaced by blazes, and the surrounding community members.

I have posted the eight-page report on the September 2011 fire at Haight and Fillmore Street here. It took less than five-minutes to download it to my hard drive and then upload it to my Google doc page. The fire department could do the same, if they really have limitations with their official site, and cease with their "we've always done it this way and it suits us, so we're not going to change" policy on reports.


sfmike said...

Joanne Hayes-White has been a disaster as Fire Chief on all kinds of levels, and public employees don't have a clue about, well, about a lot of things. This is the way we've always done it is the standing operating procedure. Give em hell.

Michael said...

thanks for the encouragement, mike. i'm trying to get the SFFD to show me where exactly in their rules or regulations or operational guidelines is the policy for how fire reports are only available through a written request. will keep you informed of how i progress with this campaign of expanding transparency at SFFD.