The Oakland Fire Marshal’s Office Has Been Understaffed for Years

The office is shorthanded, has inexperienced staff, and routinely elevates revenues over safety, according to the firefighters’ union.


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The Ghost Ship space before the fire.

The city of Oakland employed no fire marshal or assistant fire marshal for three of the past four years—officials who would have led the city agency that had the power to shut down the Ghost Ship warehouse before it erupted in flames, killing at least 36 people on Friday night.

The Oakland Fire Marshal’s Office is beset with problems, according to the Oakland firefighters’ union. It is shorthanded; it has at least one inspector who failed a state license exam; and it routinely elevates revenue-generating initiatives over public safety.

“The fire marshal’s position itself was open for three of the past four years,” said Zac Unger, an official with the Oakland firefighters’ union. During the time that Oakland had no fire marshal, Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed assumed the marshal’s duties, which include inspecting or ordering the inspection of thousands of buildings throughout the city to make sure they’re safe. Last year, the city finally hired a fire marshal: Miguel Trujillo.

It’s not clear whether Ghost Ship was inspected by the fire marshal's office. Trujillo and Reed did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment for this post.

But if the Ghost Ship had been inspected, it likely would have been ordered closed until its fire hazards were fixed. The fire marshal has the power to shut down buildings that pose a severe risk, and the Ghost Ship warehouse was riddled with dangers: It had no sprinkler system or smoke alarms; had exposed electrical wiring; was filled with highly flammable wood; and had a makeshift main stairway made of old wooden pallets.

Part of Oakland’s problem is that the city council civilianized the fire marshal’s office a number of years ago in a cost-cutting move. That means that no sworn firefighters currently work in the office. The office is supposed to have one sworn officer—acting as the assistant fire marshal—but it hasn’t filled that position for years despite having the budget to do so, said Unger, who was speaking on behalf of the union and not the fire department or the city.

“It’s valuable to have someone who has fought fires in Oakland in inspection,” Unger said. “If we had seen a staircase made out of pallets, we would have said, ‘Somebody is going to get killed.’”

As a result, Oakland firefighters had no idea what they were facing when they showed up to the massive Ghost Ship blaze late Friday. Luckily, no firefighters were hurt in the incident. Before the marshal’s office was civilianized, fire crews used to thoroughly inspect warehouses throughout the city so that firefighters would know what to expect when a blaze breaks out.

According to the firefighters’ union, the marshal’s office under Reed’s command has prioritized perfunctory inspections rather than in-depth ones in order to collect as many fire inspection fees as possible from Oakland businesses.

 

Published on Dec. 6, 2016 at 3:59 p.m.

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