Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on January 2, 2018.

Ghost Effect

A year after Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire killed 36, NFPA continues to develop tools to help cities and safety officials manage high-risk properties

BY ANGELO VERZONI

December 2 dawned sunny and brisk in Oakland, California, and within hours mourners began arriving on a block in the city’s Fruitvale neighborhood. On a fence outside a disused, two-story warehouse, wedged between a vacant lot and an auto body shop, they placed flowers, photos, and letters. Until a year ago, the building that had been known as the Ghost Ship functioned as an unpermitted living, work, and performance space, mainly for local artists.

Related Content

Read the January/February 2017 NFPA Journal article on the Ghost Ship fire, "Under the Radar".


Read the memo from Oakland on what the city has done since the Ghost Ship fire.

On the same date in 2016, 36 people died in the building when a fire ripped through it as they attended a late-night concert and dance party. It was the deadliest structure fire in modern California history.

Two days after the memorial events, a preliminary hearing began for Derick Almena, who is referred to as Ghost Ship’s former “master tenant,” and former Ghost Ship art director Max Harris, who have both been charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The men have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Dozens of civil lawsuits have also been filed by the families of victims against Almena, Harris, and others. In all of the suits, aspects of the prosecutions’ argument rely on the fact that the Ghost Ship warehouse was categorically unsafe. It was cluttered with makeshift walls, staircases, and collections of art, instruments, furniture, and other items. It lacked smoke alarms, sprinklers, and proper signage or exits.

Beyond the legal ramifications, the blaze shed light on an issue that has been a concern for the enforcement community for years: the undocumented repurposing of buildings, including former warehouses, into residential or assembly occupancies. In the wake of Ghost Ship, city and fire officials across the country scrambled to take stock of similar, potentially dangerous properties in their jurisdictions. In Oakland, those efforts have been largely shaped by input the city received from NFPA, and NFPA continues to offer resources to help authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) nationwide prioritize properties for inspection and, it’s hoped, prevent the next Ghost Ship before it happens.

The Oakland experience

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Just days after the Ghost Ship fire, NFPA reached out to officials in Oakland with a simple question: Do you need our help? The answer came quickly, and it was yes. NFPA is no stranger to extending its services in this way. It’s a step the organization has taken after historic fires like The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003 and, more recently, the 2016 wildfires that killed more than a dozen people in eastern Tennessee, which struck less than a week before the Ghost Ship blaze.

A small contingent of NFPA staff—including Ray Bizal, NFPA’s senior regional director; Steven Sawyer, NFPA’s regional director of fire codes; and Nicole Comeau, NFPA’s enforcer segment director—made an initial trip to Oakland. They walked the charred site of the warehouse, met with city leaders and fire department officials, asked a lot of questions, and were asked a lot of questions, Bizal said. What resulted was a 10-page report detailing NFPA’s recommendations for the city moving forward, based in part on NFPA 1730, Organization and Deployment of Fire Prevention Inspection and Code Enforcement, Plan Review, Investigation, and Public Education Operations.

The report outlined several recommendations rooted in three categories: community risk reduction, hazard mitigation, and education and outreach. “It says the city should identify critical or high-risk properties, staff enforcement roles accordingly, identify how property data can be better shared between departments, streamline the complaint and violation process, conduct a public education workshop, and so on,” Bizal said.

Some of the NFPA recommendations have already been implemented by the city, according to a memo sent from Oakland City Administrator Sabrina Landreth to Mayor Libby Schaaf and city councilors in November. The city has committed to hiring a dozen new fire code inspectors, strengthening its inspection process and moving to a risk-based model, investing in new technology to better track and share property data, and more, the document says.

At the time the memo was sent, the city had investigated over 30 warehouse and commercial buildings where unpermitted residential, work, or assembly occupancies were suspected, and about a third of those cases had been resolved. Instead of pushing to evict tenants in these types of properties, Oakland’s approach to problem properties has instead been to first give property owners a chance to get on the path to compliance in a bid to maintain the city’s vibrant arts culture and to recognize the challenges many residents face in finding affordable housing.

But some have been critical of that approach. “I understand the city wants a vibrant arts and cultural community, and I understand there’s a housing crisis…But that doesn’t mean you get to turn a blind eye to fire and safety issues just because your mayor is worried about displacing people from a building they shouldn’t have been in in the first place,” Robert Thompson, an attorney representing a dozen families of Ghost Ship fire victims, told The San Francisco Chronicle.

The newspaper also published articles taking aim at the city—specifically, its fire department—in the immediate aftermath of the fire. The Ghost Ship warehouse had not been inspected in 30 years and wasn’t listed in the department’s database of properties requiring inspections, according to the Chronicle. “It seemed even more odd that such activity went unnoticed by the fire station that’s located just a block away,” the paper wrote. About three months later, the city’s then–fire chief, Teresa Deloach Reed, who is a current member of NFPA’s Board of Directors, announced her retirement.

Beyond Ghost Ship: politics and policy

Oakland’s learning experience has hardly been unique. After the Ghost Ship fire, reports surfaced from cities across the country as they discovered similar properties, in some cases shutting them down with few questions asked. Los Angeles city officials, for example, shut down an illegal warehouse-turned-night club that contained “haphazard wiring snaked through walls” and fire hazards like a staircase canopied by bamboo wood, according to the Associated Press.

Elsewhere, the approach has been more akin to Oakland’s. Denver city officials, for example, have allowed property owners time to bring their spaces up to code, even while residents continue to occupy them. In December, the city announced a new grant program to provide funding to help owners bring some of these properties into compliance.

Cities’ sudden action on the issue of the undocumented repurposing of buildings isn’t surprising. It’s an unfortunate but common trend: neglect, tragedy, action. It was seen after the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942. It was seen in the United Kingdom after the Grenfell Tower fire just this past June.

Despite this, a recent telephone survey of over 1,000 U.S. residents commissioned by NFPA shows the public overwhelmingly thinks policymakers should prioritize fire safety, and do so by adopting the latest fire and electrical safety codes. Eighty-one percent of U.S. adults surveyed said policymakers should prioritize fire safety, and 74 percent said they trust their state and local politicians to adopt the latest fire and electrical safety codes. In reality, though, many jurisdictions are slow to adopt the latest codes and standards from organizations like NFPA for a number of reasons, such as financial stresses and the inherent slowness of the legislative process.

To help meet the expectations of the public, NFPA recently formed the Fire and Life Safety Policy Institute. Based in Washington, D.C., it will provide policymakers on the local, state, and federal levels with “recommendations, analyses, and ideas to help guide or influence them on different courses of action that will move us toward our goals around preventing loss,” Policy Institute Director Meghan Housewright told NFPA Journal in September, when the institute launched.

When it comes to issues specifically like the Ghost Ship warehouse, a more tangible resource from NFPA to help enforcers be more effective is a new inspection tool called Property Inspection Prioritization, or PIP. The tool is one of a number of new data-driven resources from NFPA. “Our vision here has been to build a family of data solutions that are useful to fire departments and many others,” said Kathleen Almand, vice president of research at NFPA. “A lot of these tools are built around risk assessment.”

With the PIP tool, AHJs will input information about properties in their jurisdictions into the system, which then churns out a data set of properties prioritized based on risk. It was designed to “replicate the thinking of a building inspector,” said Joe Gochal, director of data and analytics for NFPA. NFPA will continue improving the tool, Almand said, with the goal of providing a resource that can prepopulate information fields using real-estate records and other data sets about a property to make AHJs’ jobs easier.

More information on the Policy Institute can be found online, and to explore the PIP tool, visit the website.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: AP/Wide World