Monday, May 14, 2018
[Alameda County] Ghost Ship Blaze Spurs Inspection Change
Blog note: this article references a 2014 grand jury report on the Fire Department’s dealing with fire hazards.
May 11--Oakland officials halted an inspection program that sends firefighters to multifamily apartments, restaurants and other commercial buildings to check for safety and fire hazards -- because of a change in computer software.
In a department-wide email two weeks ago, Fire Chief Darin White said there would be a "temporary suspension" of the commercial inspection program, one of three inspection programs overseen by the Fire Department. He told his staff that they might lose access to the computer software program that helped firefighters track inspections of commercial buildings starting May 1.
The software was blamed following the Ghost Ship fire for not flagging the warehouse for inspection. Officials are in the process of replacing the database with a more reliable tracking system.
But the new system isn't yet ready.
City Councilman Noel Gallo, who sits on the Public Safety Committee and represents the Fruitvale neighborhood, was frustrated to hear that commercial inspections were suspended.
"When it comes to public safety," he said, "software or managerial excuses don't cut it."
Deputy Fire Chief Melinda Drayton said she does not know when the inspections will resume, but she and other officials emphasized they are a small part of all fire inspections and not legally mandated.
The department does three types of inspections. Fire-code inspections are required by law on a yearly basis for buildings like jails, high-rises, new construction sites and churches. Vegetation inspections happen during wildfire season in the Oakland hills, where firefighters check houses and vacant lots for overgrowth and other hazards.
Commercial inspections -- the ones that have been suspended -- are for smaller businesses and certain apartment building. The city's website says, "These inspections are conducted by the members of the OFD Operations Division, on a block-by-block basis, with the intent to inspect commercial & residential properties as it pertains to the code and ordinance; provide fire and other life safety hazards education to business owners/occupants; and conduct pre-fire planning for future emergency response. ... It is our goal to provide you excellent service by identifying those activities, processes, or construction flaws which can lead to unwanted fires, and other types of accidents or emergencies."
On Thursday, city spokeswoman Karen Boyd described the inspections as "supplemental" and said, "Life-safety inspections have not been impacted by the effort to improve our data collection and data sharing systems."
In his memo to fire staff, White cautioned that suspending the program should not affect efforts to prevent fires.
"This does not and should not preclude companies from continuing to conduct building walk-throughs, pre-fire planning and making referrals as necessary to the Fire Prevention Bureau and other compliance agencies and divisions," White said in the April 27 notice.
The Fire Department's inspection programs came under scrutiny in recent years after deadly blazes at the Ghost Ship warehouse and a halfway house on San Pablo Avenue.
In 2014, an Alameda County civil grand jury investigation revealed that the Fire Department was not trying to check one-third of the city's 12,000 commercial buildings for fire hazards. And for one-quarter of inspections that were attempted, the buildings couldn't be accessed.
Drayton said the inspections that have been suspended -- which are conducted across the city by individual fire crews -- are a small portion of the total inspections the department carries out. She said inspections mandated by law -- for high-rise buildings, construction sites, special events and the like -- will continue. Those are handled by civilian inspectors in the Fire Prevention Bureau.
For years, the department used a software program called One Step to record what firefighters saw while inspecting buildings. But the database, which has been described as clumsy and difficult to navigate, was missing property records.
The system was originally designed based on business licenses. That meant there could be outdated records for buildings, duplicate records -- a hair salon with multiple stylists -- or no records at all. The Ghost Ship, for instance, just a block away from a fire station, was never inspected in the years it was used as an art collective and event space because there was no license associated with its operations.
In response to the warehouse disaster, which killed 36 guests at an electronic music show, the city paid $2.7 million to expand a different data management system used by the city's Planning and Building Department. Oakland officials said that system, called Accela, was more thorough and would prevent inspection lapses because properties were inputted based on county parcel information.
But migrating the data -- and building out the fire module of the new system -- is not complete yet.
Dan Robertson, president of the firefighters' union, said problems arising while moving to a new system were to be expected. But a lack of resources and staffing in the department is hurting the safety of firefighters and citizens, he added.
"We would've liked to have seen better planning and coordination, maybe with a bigger commitment of staff resources, to make the transition more seamless for us in the firehouse," Robertson said. "By not empowering us to continue to vigorously perform effective fire inspections, it sends a message, especially considering the lack of direction to us on dealing with (homeless) encampments."
Drayton said the department has purchased a cloud-based version of the One Step program to retain the old data while the system is transitioned, but it's licensed on fewer computers now. Firefighters need to be trained on that version before the commercial inspection program can be fully restored, she said. Drayton said she didn't know when that would be.
Right now, Drayton said, the department is training everyone on how to use Accela for vegetation-management inspections -- different than commercial inspections -- as wildfire season in the hills nears. That part of the new database will be rolled out next week.
Also next week, the City Council will vote on a $150,000 contract that will extend One Step up to two more years in order to keep the old inspection records while transitioning between systems.
May 11, 2018
By Kimberly Veklerow, San Francisco Chronicle