SAN FRANCISCO - A fire alarm technician with a fake certification signed off on a fire alarm system that reportedly failed during a deadly blaze in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2015.
2 Investigates found Tom Jue has been working on Bay Area fire alarms for more than a decade using another company’s license number. And he continued to work unlicensed even after the Mission District fire, according to recent reviews on the Yelp page for Tom Jue & Company.
The inferno broke out in the 3200 block of 22nd Street in the Mission District on the evening of Jan. 18, 2015. The flames caught dozens of families off guard, with residents reporting that they didn’t know about the fire until neighbors ran through their apartments to jump out of windows. In one case, a small boy jumped with his dog.
The blaze injured six people, including a firefighter, and killed Mauricio Orellana, a resident who was known to volunteer at a nearby church.
“It broke my heart,” said Orellana’s friend, Martha Daza, adding that to her, he was more like a son.
Orellana’s family is suing building owner Hawk Lou and Jue for wrongful death. During his deposition, Jue said he has never been an employee of or contractor with “GC Electric,” the company that is registered to the license number on file with the state.
Referring to Jue, the owner of GC Electric told attorneys, “I have not authorized. Definitely I did not – basically, I don’t even know this person.”
Court documents also show that the San Francisco Fire Department inspector who checked the alarm the day after the fire “simply [looked] for the sticker with the vendor’s name and license number on it.”
Even with multiple reports of blocked fire exits and fire alarm failure, fire inspector Mike Patt’s visit to the building lasted a half hour, according to his testimony. Patt also testified that he did not check if the fire alarm system sounded.
Simply looking at a name and license number is inadequate, according to Enforcement Supervisor II Cynthia Moore with the Contractors State Licensing Board, the agency that issues licenses to fire alarm inspectors.
“How hard is it to get business cards made anyway or to have different publications or make a website up. Anybody can do that,” she said.
A certification tag showing the alarm was inspected by Tom Jue & Company on Jan. 28, 2014
2 Investigates brought this new information to the San Francisco Fire Department. Fire Marshal Dan de Cossio confirmed they are reviewing allegations involving Jue.
SFFD also told KTVU that Patt only visited the site of the deadly fire for “educational purposes.”
“It was not a formal inspection. It was a visit to the fire ground post fire incident, which is common practice,” said Fire Marshal Dan de Cossio. “It’s not our expertise to check a fire alarm.”
Fire Marshal de Cossio, who’s held the position since a few months after the fire, says the department acknowledged they needed to strengthen how they vet licenses. He said the department also made changes that went in effect in 2017, including scrutinizing compliance forms submitted to the department by building owners.
When asked what the Department is doing to address how it checks fire alarm certification tags, spokesman Lt. Jonathan Baxter said the fire department is “reviewing how we can afford more options for the public.”
According to documents obtained by 2 Investigates, the Contractors State Licensing Board is actively investigating Jue and the contractor’s license he improperly used. It’s unclear how many of the fire alarms certified by Jue remain in service.
“It’s absolutely a public safety issue,” said Moore. “If your contractor is not properly licensed, he or she hasn’t had the experience needed, hasn’t been tested, doesn’t have the bond to protect you from poor workmanship and a background check. You don’t know who’s coming into your home.”
How to check if your fire alarm was installed by a qualified technician
Visit the Contractors State License Board’s website. You can type in the person or company’s name or the license number to verify legitimacy.
Some employees can work under their employer’s license number. If that’s the case, CSLB officials say, even if it may be uncomfortable, everyone should ask for the technician’s identification and call the employer listed to confirm employment.
If you don’t have access to a computer, you can also call CSLB at 1(800) 321-2752.