Keeping communities safe from fire, electrical, and other related hazards isn’t something that just happens—it’s the result of having a fully functioning Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem. When any one component fails, consequences can be catastrophic.
In the case of the May 16, 2020 explosion at a downtown Los Angeles cannabis-related business (Smoke Tokes), 11 firefighters were injured—and the outcome could have been much, much worse. What I have read about the event since it happened illustrates breakdowns in the Ecosystem, and in Los Angeles there is already movement afoot to close some of those gaps. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “LAFD has no record of inspecting downtown building that exploded in May,” highlights the failure of the “Code Compliance” Ecosystem component and is tied to how having a trained workforce could have helped avoid this outcome.
Ecosystem Component: Code Compliance
Keeping buildings in compliance with codes is a two-way street. Building owners, facility managers, and tenants share a responsibility for keeping buildings and businesses safe on a day-to-day basis. Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) are responsible for ensuring that buildings are in compliance by performing inspections, often at prescribed intervals. In the case of Smoke Tokes, the Los Angeles Fire Department had no record of ever inspecting the business, despite the fact that the property was listed in the department’s Fire Prevention Database. According to Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas, the business required an annual inspection, and if it had been inspected, it is likely that the large quantities of hazardous materials (butane and nitrous oxide) would have been seized. That said, if the building had been inspected before these chemicals were brought in or stored in dangerous quantities, an inspection wouldn’t have changed this outcome. Because inspections are a snapshot in time, having a skilled workforce is an equally critical component in terms of helping drive safety on an ongoing basis.
Ecosystem Component: Skilled Workforce
As my colleague, Meghan Housewright, wrote in her June blog, "Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem: Skillsets are Incomplete Without Key Safety Component," … “A skilled worker who overlooks safety is not a skilled worker.” Building owners and facility managers play a vital role in ensuring that the buildings they own and manage are safe. Understanding fire and life safety requirements for maintaining safe buildings is a key (and often overlooked) piece of knowledge that people need to do their job. For example, they need to understand what type of activity tenants are engaged in and whether that activity is allowed based on the building’s occupancy classification and protection features to ensure the proper safety systems are in place. Beyond that, tenants need to understand safety requirements around the storage and use of products that they sell or need as part of doing business, among many other things. If people don’t know the requirements, it is unlikely that they are aware of risks, and even less likely that they actively work to mitigate them. So many of these tragic events are preventable—but only if people are aware of and manage risk.
Using the Ecosystem as a Framework
The Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem is a valuable tool to help you identify opportunities to work differently to improve community safety. Finding and closing Ecosystem gaps proactively is a great way to reduce risk, and it’s equally important to learn from Ecosystem failures. In Los Angeles, Chief Terrazas responded swiftly, ordering “a citywide audit of businesses that store and sell volatile materials. As of August 30, the department had conducted 328 investigations of such businesses and identified 108 that had not previously been in the city's fire prevention database, Terrazas said. The department also issued 64 fire violation notices and ordered 12 businesses shuttered for various safety violations, records provided by the department show.”
The cannabis market is expanding quickly as more and more states pass legislation to legalize its growth and use. As new businesses enter the market, sometimes safety is overlooked and/or not well-understood. NFPA has responded to the unique fire safety needs related to the growth and extraction of cannabis, adding an entire new chapter, Chapter 38, to the 2018 edition of NFPA 1, Fire Code. Many jurisdictions use this chapter to amend their state or local fire code to increase safety related to these processes. Additionally, we have a host of resources available online and invite you to share your experience about the safety issues you are facing on NFPA’s dedicated cannabis research webpage.
We at NFPA are working tirelessly to ensure that everyone involved in the cannabis industry, regardless of where they fit in the Ecosystem, understand the risks and respond responsibly. Many people think that “it” can’t happen to them. It can and it does. A great first step to make sure it doesn’t is to understand the hazards and risks, and to work proactively and collaboratively to mitigate them.
IT’S A BIG WORLD. LET’S PROTECT IT TOGETHER.