Wednesday, December 7, 2016
[Alameda County] Oakland Fire Department’s troubled building inspection effort
Blog note: this article references a 2014 grand jury report in the fire department’s inspections.
Two years before the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire, the Alameda County civil grand jury sounded the alarm about deficiencies in the Oakland Fire Department’s inspection bureau — saying the city wasn’t even trying to check a third of the 12,000 commercial properties that were supposed to be examined every year.
Despite assurances from Fire Department brass that they would address the problem, the city continues to have fewer inspectors on the streets than its website reports, interviews and public records indicate — leaving most buildings to be checked by rank-and-file firefighters on a catch-as-catch-can basis.
An Alameda County civil grand jury report found in 2014 that Oakland’s fire inspection efforts were lacking. Some fear that not much has changed since then.
Under California law, cities are required to enforce building standards that the state has adopted. That means inspecting businesses and large residential structures for fire hazards and other safety dangers — including live-work warehouses like the one that burned Friday in Oakland, killing 36 people.
But according to records that the Oakland Fire Department submitted to the civil grand jury for the watchdog panel’s 2014 report, fire inspectors were being sent to only 8,000 buildings a year — and couldn’t gain access to 2,000 of them.
The remaining buildings — 4,000 in all — were going unchecked because of what the Fire Department called competing priorities.
The upshot, according to the grand jury: The Fire Department was giving people “the false impression that all commercial businesses are inspected annually.”
One big problem, the grand jury concluded, was that Oakland’s funding source for the $1 million-a-year inspection program was being pinched. City fees assessed to commercial operations were supposed to help pay for it, but budget cuts left City Hall unable to collect all the money. The city turned the job over to the Fire Department, which didn’t have the capacity to handle it, the grand jury said.
Grand jury members are barred from speaking individually about an investigation, but one source who had a hand in the report told us that Fire Department officials “were quite concerned” about the missed inspections. Nonetheless, the source said, they chose to not bolster their fee-collecting efforts because that might divert money needed to retain firefighters.
“They didn’t seem to understand their mission — their mission seemed to be to keep (firefighters’) jobs,” the source said.
One of the big questions after Friday night’s disaster, which happened during an electronic music show at the live-work warehouse at 31st Avenue and International Boulevard, was when fire inspectors last checked the place. The Ghost Ship operation had been there since at least 2013.
It’s a question Oakland officials have yet to answer. The city has promised to release inspection records from the property, but hadn’t done so as of Tuesday.
Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed did not respond this week to our requests for comment on how her department reacted to the grand jury report. Neither did Mayor Libby Schaaf, who was on the City Council when the jury issued its findings.
However, in an 11-page response to the grand jury at the time, Deloach Reed acknowledged that many of its findings were accurate and that the Fire Department was “working diligently” to correct the problems — including improving its revenue collections and filling jobs that had been frozen or eliminated because of budget cuts.
Other city officials, however, say they doubt the Fire Department is doing all the inspections it’s supposed to do every year.
“We don’t have the personnel to do that,” said City Councilman Noel Gallo, whose district includes the Ghost Ship building.
Gallo agreed with the grand jury’s finding on why the department fell behind on routine inspections.
“They went through the budget cuts years ago, and many were laid off,” in both the fire and building inspection departments, Gallo said.
The Fire Department’s website says the agency has seven fire-code inspectors and an equal number of “vegetation management” inspectors, who specialize in making sure hillside neighborhoods have defensible spaces. But sources tell us the actual number of inspectors on the street may be about half that number — a problem some inside the Fire Department say was exacerbated by the defeat of a 2013 ballot measure to extend a city tax meant to reduce the threat of wildfires.
Payroll data from the state controller show that Oakland had nine fire inspectors in 2015 and one vegetation management supervisor. But four of the inspectors made less than $40,000 in base salary — one was under $18,000 — indicating that they may not have been on the job full-time.
“We have always pointed out the need for additional, full-time, dedicated fire prevention inspectors,” said Daniel Robertson, head of the Oakland Firefighters Union.
Don’t look to Sacramento for help. Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Fire Marshal’s Office, said the state does not keep tabs on local inspection rates.
“It’s all done in-house. The city or county are responsible for their own inspections,” McLean said.
Oakland officials have said the city opened a blight investigation into the Ghost Ship last month, but that’s a different assignment from the one given to fire inspectors.
The safety checklist that fire inspectors are tasked with is a long one. Buildings are supposed to have unobstructed and marked entry and exit points, working fire sprinklers, functioning smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, and proper electrical wiring. Combustibles must be safely stored.
Because of Oakland’s shortage of fire inspectors, neighborhood engine companies — like Engine 13 at 1225 Derby Ave., just around the corner from the Ghost Ship — now handle many inspections in between calls for fire and medical runs, according to department sources.
However, firefighters say the local stations generally steer clear of politically sensitive places like the arts-centered Ghost Ship — leaving them to be handled by inspectors in the overworked fire prevention bureau.
As one station house firefighter, who wasn’t authorized to speak for the record, told us, “If the owner of an illegally occupied building tells us to our face that nobody is sleeping there, all we can do is refer it up (the command chain) or come back and try and catch them in the act.”
No easy feat for crews making 20 or more emergency runs in a 24-hour shift.
As for filling the budget hole so the city can pay for more inspectors? Gallo said one possibility will be to tap licensing fees for newly legalized marijuana operations.
“That is going to generate billions of dollars, I’m told,” Gallo said.
December 6, 2016
San Francisco Chronicle
By Matier & Ross