A California news organization, seeking answers after a bout of deadly Golden State fires in residential buildings, has published an investigative report detailing serious lapses in the Bay Area regarding apartment building and school inspections. The report touches on concerns about the devastation that structural fires can cause, especially when many are preventable.
One of the findings of the California fire inspection report was that in 2017 officials did not inspect a staggering 72 percent of Oakland apartment buildings. Oakland became the site of one of the deadliest fires in over a decade in 2016, when a two-story warehouse called the Ghost Ship, which owners illegally converted into residences, caught fire and killed 36 people. Officials promised change after the devastating fire, but the report says there was no progress on that front.
Report Shows Long Lapses Between Inspections Even After Multiple Building Fires
The investigation that led to the California fire inspection report was conducted by the Bay Area News Group, which comprises several news publications in the state, including The Mercury News, East Bay Times, and Marin Independent Journal.
Investigative journalists working on the report examined data from 11 of the largest fire agencies in the Bay Area—gathered from the years 2010 to 2017—to compile their results. They also interviewed officials within the fire community and spoke with outside experts.
Some of the report’s findings? Ninety-three percent of apartment buildings analyzed in those areas over the eight years included in the report went more than a year between inspections. That figure was even higher for schools, with 96 percent going at least 12 months without an inspection. This is a sharp contrast to California’s legal requirement that fire departments inspect apartment buildings, hotels and motels and K-12 schools once a year. The report noted that many of the issues stem from overwhelmed and disorganized fire departments.
Overall the report looked at 17,000 apartment buildings throughout the Bay Area. Almost a quarter of those were not inspected in 2017. A frightening 400 of those apartment buildings had not been inspected even once in the last four years studied.
Oakland A Focal Point for Building Fire Safety Issues
The recent report on California fire inspections found that Oakland was a city of high concern. It had the worst record for apartment building inspections, with only 28 percent of Oakland apartment buildings inspected in 2017, and 32 percent of its inspections falling into a category the report entitled “exceedingly late” (more than six months delinquent or over 18 months after the last inspection).
Oakland schools were also problematic. 77 percent of Oakland schools were not inspected in 2017, and those that were inspected had serious problems—72 percent failed, with reasons that included blocked exits and broken fire alarms.
The risk of these uninspected and failed-inspection buildings in Oakland was highlighted by the Ghost Ship warehouse fire and a West Oakland fire in a halfway house that officials cited for serious code violations but had not had an annual inspection. Four people were killed in that fire, which came only three days after city officials made note of overloaded electrical cords, inoperable sprinklers, broken fire alarms, and a lack of fire extinguishers.
Numerous complaints had been filed before the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, but records do not show evidence of fire officials entering the building before the blaze despite concerns raised by city officials. Furthermore, the building never received an annual inspection, which would likely have found obvious fire safety hazards in the building and possibly prevented the tragedy.
Following the two fires, Oakland city officials committed to conducting more fire inspections, but the Bay Area News Group report said that there were 15 percent fewer fire inspections in 2017. They cited Oakland Fire Chief Darin White as saying it was even less than that, and that his data showed a 25 percent decrease in fire inspections that year.
Glaring Fire Safety Issues Such as Blocked Emergency Exits Plague Bay Area
What are these overdue inspections meant to catch? One crucial element is paths to escape in the event of a fire.
The report found that some buildings had stairway exits blocked by trash and building supplies, others had faulty escape latches on metal bars over ground-floor windows and faulty door locks, requiring residents to use a key to exit through a door during a fire, a step that could translate into the seconds between survival and death.
At still another building, a full ashtray poised beside a propane tank indicated a staggering risk for a fire.
California Fire Inspection Report Motivates Senator to Introduce New Legislation
Officials in the Bay Area have taken note of the investigative report and its findings, with Democratic Senator Jerry Hill of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties already introducing legislation that would require more accountability from fire departments about their adherence to the annual inspection law.
Under the proposed legislation, titled Senate Bill 1205, fire departments would have to report back to either their city council or county board of supervisors on how they are complying with the requirement to inspect apartment buildings, schools, hotels and motels every 12 months.
“The state Legislature has established the importance of these inspections by requiring them by law,” Sen. Hill said in a statement. “But current law doesn’t set up a check or balance to determine whether the inspections are being carried out. My legislation would address that accountability gap by ensuring that local governing bodies—the city councils or boards of supervisors—are aware of whether their fire departments are complying with the law and whether annual inspections have been conducted at the schools, apartment buildings and other structures in their communities.”