Flirting With Disaster

Months after the Ghost Ship blaze rocked Oakland, Alameda is grappling with whether to reinstate its fire safety inspection team.



Fire Chief Doug Long has been working double-duty as both the chief and the fire marshal.

Photo courtesy of the city of Alameda

In the aftermath of the tragic Ghost Ship fire, Oakland fire officials endured intense criticism for failing to inspect the Fruitvale district warehouse before it burst into flames on Dec. 2, killing 36 people. Among the many troubling revelations following the blaze was the disclosure that Oakland had no fire marshal or assistant fire marshal for three of the past four years and that the department’s fire inspection bureau was woefully understaffed. The Ghost Ship, in other words, was a disaster waiting to happen.

But Alameda has been quietly flirting with its own disaster for the last eight years. In 2009, during the Great Recession, the city shuttered the fire department’s fire inspection bureau in a cost-cutting move. And ever since, the Island has had no full-time fire marshal and no fire inspectors.

Instead, Fire Chief Doug Long has been working double-duty as both the chief and the fire marshal, and the city’s firefighters have been forced to conduct inspections on top of their regular work. Not surprisingly, they haven’t been able to keep up. The vast majority of Alameda’s buildings and businesses are going uninspected each year. According to city and fire officials, 70 percent of the required inspections of restaurants, warehouses, apartment buildings, and other commercial businesses have not been completed since the city gutted the fire-inspection team.

“I was horrified by the Ghost Ship fire, and I want to make sure that this doesn’t happen in Alameda,” said Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, in an interview. “Some buildings haven’t been inspected since 2005.”

In recent months, Long has been developing a plan to reinstate Alameda’s fire inspection team, known as the fire prevention bureau. In early March, the city council met in private with the chief and the firefighters’ union to discuss the proposal. Long and councilmembers declined to reveal what was said during the meeting, noting that it was a closed session, but it’s clear there’s momentum to bring back the fire prevention bureau in light of what occurred across the estuary.

“The Ghost Ship fire happened in our backyard,” said Jeff DelBono, president of Alameda Firefighters Local 689. “And so it’s become even more pressing for Alameda to get the fire prevention bureau reestablished.”

Photo by Ariel Nava

The Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people on Dec. 2.

Although there is no indication that Alameda shares Oakland’s problem of having dozens of old warehouses that were illegally turned into artists’ enclaves like the Ghost Ship, there is ample evidence that Alameda is failing to ensure that its buildings and businesses are safe. When battling structure fires, Alameda firefighters often don’t know what to expect because buildings have not been inspected—a dangerous situation for first responders. “We just don’t have the manpower to get it all done,” DelBono said of the inspections.

Before the city killed the fire prevention bureau in 2009, it was a six-person team: a fire marshal, a captain (or assistant fire marshal), two full-time fire inspectors, and two non-sworn code enforcement officers. The bureau’s responsibilities included inspecting all restaurants and commercial businesses; buildings and warehouses; nursing homes and assisted living facilities; and all apartment buildings with three units or more.

The bureau also was in charge of hazardous materials sites; the city currently contracts with Alameda County for this job. In addition, the bureau examined all new construction blueprints for fire safety—a responsibility that is now pressing as the city embarks on a housing boom. “With all the building that goes in town—all those plans need to be reviewed,” Long said.

DelBono estimated that reestablishing the bureau would cost the city about $600,000 to $700,000 a year. He also said there will be startup costs, but that, over time, the bureau should become nearly cost-neutral because the city charges building and business owners for inspections.

Councilmember Jim Oddie said the city also can’t afford to repeat budget mistakes of the past. In 2011, a suicidal man, Raymond Zack, died in the bay off Robert Crown Beach as firefighters and police officers looked on. After the tragedy, the city concluded that the decision in 2009 to eliminate the firefighters’ water rescue program in another cost-cutting move played a role in Zack’s death. “When you cut safety programs, it comes back to bite you,” Oddie said.

But it remains to be seen whether the city can cobble together the funds required to relaunch the fire prevention bureau. This spring, city officials are hammering out the 2017-18 fiscal year budget, and Alameda has a lot of competing financial needs. For example, as of mid-March, the operator of the city’s animal shelter, Friends of Alameda Animal Shelter, was still asking the city for an additional $1.3 million a year.

But at least three city councilmembers—Ezzy Ashcraft, Oddie, and Malia Vella—strongly indicated in interviews that reinstating the fire prevention bureau was a high priority for them before the city’s budget deadline of June 30. “We have to be mindful of the many budget priorities facing the city, but public safety is always front and center,” Ashcraft said.

Oddie said Alameda can’t wait for a tragedy to strike. “It’s not hypothetical: It happened here [with Raymond Zack], and it happened two miles away with the Ghost Ship fire,” he said. “I think this is most critical. We’re talking life or death.”

 

Published online on April 3, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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