Recently, utility company PG&E announced they had reached a settlement with victims’ families and survivors of the Ghost Ship fire for an undisclosed amount. According to the plaintiffs, PG&E “knew or should have known” that the electrical connection and usage at the warehouse-turned artist collective were haphazard and unsafe. This comes on the heels of a $32.7 million-dollar settlement reached last month with the city of Oakland alleging roughly the same thing—that the city was aware of unsafe conditions but failed to act. The 2016 fire was a loud wake up call for Oakland, exposing weaknesses in fire safety enforcement that contributed to the deaths of 36 people. However, given that these weaknesses live in other cities too, more tragedies are waiting if others sleep through the alarm.
Safety is created by an ecosystem made up of codes, skilled workers, regular enforcement, and public understanding. It is not a spontaneous condition. Most critically, it requires the government never takes its role in leading these efforts for granted.
In Oakland, that system broke down. Reportedly, city officials, even fire personnel, were aware of the warehouse turned artists’ residence and unpermitted concert space. Code violations, like exposed wires and a staircase created from wooden shipping pallets, were glaring. The precise cause of the city’s inertia may be an unknown but the fact that only six fire inspectors served a city of over 430,000 certainly contributed, as did shoddy reporting and chaotic filing systems. These factors left a system where nearly 80 percent of fire safety referrals citywide were left un-inspected in the six years before the fire.
Unfortunately, weak enforcement systems are spread well beyond Oakland. In-depth reporting in 2018 from the Mercury News East Bay Times discovered that Bay Area cities routinely missed mandated yearly inspections for hotels, motels, apartment buildings, and schools. Further away, in Las Vegas, a motel, which had gone uninspected for several years despite safety complaints, caught fire killing six people. And in Washington, DC, an alert from police to city inspectors flagging an unsafe, illicit residence slipped through the cracks. A fire months later killed two people, including a 9-year-old boy.
To avoid catastrophes big and small, cities should check the health of the ecosystem that protects their citizens. By conducting community risk assessments, safety officials better prioritize their inspection resources. Through integrating systems across multiple departments, building and fire officials can keep a better eye on the city’s built environment and be aware of buildings that are no longer compliant with permits and inspections from years ago. Critically, police, child protective services, and all other officials need formalized protocols for reporting unsafe conditions to fire authorities. This all must operate within a culture that understands acting will save lives.
Investment in safety is exponentially better than investment in lawsuits. The $32.7 million dollars to victims’ families and an injured survivor may be the best civil justice can offer, but it will never replace what was lost. Rather than wait for the next tragedy, engaging now in a full safety systems approach will help us get closer to ending these avoidable losses.
Meghan Housewright is the director of the National Fire Protection Association Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute. The Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute supports policymakers around the globe in protecting people and property from fire and other hazards with best practice recommendations and approaches to develop and sustain a strong fire prevention and protection system.
Photo: A view from above Oakland, CA