Rapid response: 5 early takeaways from Oakland’s fire tragedy

While a full picture of the Ghost Ship fire tragedy will be slow developing, these things are clear now


When I read the first story of this weekend’s fire in Oakland that has so far killed 33 people with more fatalities expected, I had to double check the dateline. Surely it was an editing mistake; these fires happen in places like India where building and fire codes are all but nonexistent.

Of course, it wasn’t an editing error. This did happen in a fully developed nation with long-established codes. And, of course, it’s not the first such tragedy, which is a tragedy in itself.

Fully understanding how this fire happened will take time. Yet, some things we know immediately and can use to better prepare our departments and communities. Here’s a look at five things we know matters.

1. Responders matter
Not to diminish or downplay the suffering of those who lost loved ones in this fire, but those charged with recovery efforts will need behavioral health support. Early estimates are that as many as 40 may have died in this fire, meaning firefighters may have recovered barely half of those bodies so far. Sifting through debris bucket by bucket looking for remains is mentally hard work and they will need the time and resources to deal with that.

For the rest of us, it means looking at our own mental health resources and making sure enough are available in the event of a similar tragedy. This has happened before, and all indications are that it will happen again.

2. Codes matter
The warehouse renamed Ghost Ship was clearly being used in ways that were far outside what was permitted. This weekend’s party wasn’t the first of its kind and at least one report said 20 people were living in what could qualify as a hoarder occupancy.

Whether Oakland officials did all they could to rectify this situation will come out it in time. But it is a grim example that can be used to motivate stronger code rules and enforcement in other communities.

Humans are great at reacting to tragedy, and less so at doing what’s needed to prevent them. This incident begs for nationwide reaction as a means of prevention.

3. Sprinklers matter
The number of dead in this fire would likely have been zero if the building had a working sprinkler system. Enough said.

4. History matters
The coincidental timing of the Ghost Ship fire with the anniversary of the Coconut Grove fire (Nov. 28, 1942) is less important than the fact that fires like these continue to happen despite reactionary and necessary fire code and safety improvements.

Municipal leaders and the general public need to take fire safety serious — see item three above.

5. Education matters
Mechanical and social engineering cannot fully solve our fire safety problem. The public must buy into and take responsibility for their own safety.

That’s a tall order. But the Ghost Ship fire is a stark reminder that public fire safety education needs to be a year-round, well-funded activity.

Ultimately, our leaders and citizens will need to decide if they are willing to tolerate India-like fire tragedies. It’s our responsibility to make them see this as unacceptable. 

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