Post-9/11 lessons may prevent Ghost Ship fires

Inter-agency communication gaps and information hoarding stands in the way of fire prevention

Fire investigators continue to sift through evidence from Oakland’s warehouse known as Ghost Ship to determine the cause and origin of this month’s deadly fire. And in city hall, officials are trying to sift through who knew what and when about Ghost Ship before it caught fire.

Both will take time; the latter possibly longer.

A few interesting things have come up that those of us not in Oakland can consider how they fit into our own jurisdictions and what fixes can be applied.

The police report having been called to the warehouse for various complaints in recent years. They took some heat for not writing paper on the code violations; their union’s response was that cops aren’t trained in fire and building codes, nor do they have the time to do inspections.

The fire chief said her department did not inspect the warehouse, nor did they know that it was being used for housing and small concerts. As far as their records show, the building was vacant and they don’t inspect vacant buildings, she said.

Oakland firefighters from a nearby station may have known the warehouse was in use; that too is being investigated.

After the Ghost Ship fire, many cities, such as Baltimore, began to ferret out similar structures being used in unpermitted ways. Oakland’s mayor is not following suit, saying she “will not let our emotions lead to hasty decisions or witch hunts.”

I hope this decision does not come back to haunt them.

Previous lessons

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 revealed two communication flaws. The first was that different agencies could not communicate by radio with one another.

The second was that different agencies did not communicate or share vital information with one another. This type of bureaucratic communication gulf was evident in that the CIA and FBI were not sharing information that may have prevented the attacks.

Fire departments across the nation are sending inspectors out to known and suspected sites to avoid a Ghost Ship catastrophe. That’s a good and needed step in the short run.

For the long run, we’ll need to establish solid, reliable communication across the different municipal departments. Whether it’s employees of parks and rec., streets and san., building and codes or police officers, there needs to be a clear way to report what they observe as they go about their daily work.

I’d speculate that this is already happening more in smaller communities that have fewer calls and fewer employees, albeit on a more informal basis. And this may be one case where larger cities will need to follow smaller towns’ lead, but with formal channels and processes to get this done.

Even as I was writing this, a firefighter from a town near Chicago sent me a news clipping of the fire chief reaching out to the community asking them to report situations like the Oakland warehouse.

The long-term problem of illegal or underground housing won’t be solved by more inspections any more than our skyrocketing EMS call volume will be solved by more ambulances and larger emergency departments.

Local governments will need to treat the disease, not just the symptoms. And as with the EMS problem requiring things like mobile integrated health care efforts, that will mean connecting agencies and enacting policies that solve low-income housing and vacant building issues.

In the near term, municipalities must engage everyone in a “see something, say something” effort to identify and rectify immediate threats, regardless of who sees it and when.

The rest of us don’t need to wait for the results of Oakland’s investigations to improve our own communication processes and efforts to head off the next civilian fire tragedy. 

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