Oakland Fire Department software blamed for inspection lapses
Officials called the city's older database a clumsy, incomplete repository of city properties
By Kimberly Veklerov
San Francisco Chroncile
OAKLAND, Calif. — After a 2011 civil grand jury report excoriated Oakland’s building services division, concluding that some inspectors were keeping property records in their desk drawers rather than a central database, the city purchased a multimillion-dollar software system to bring the department into the 21st century.
But next door, in the Fire Prevention Bureau, which is tasked with annually inspecting all commercial buildings and certain residential properties, the staff was stuck with an older database that its users describe as a clumsy, incomplete repository of city properties.
“It’s been cumbersome from the get-go,” said acting Fire Chief Mark Hoffmann, adding that city officials have not paid for system upgrades over the years. “It’s not particularly user-friendly for people who enter data. You can’t seamlessly go window to window.”
The system’s deficiencies may have contributed to lapses in inspections of dangerous buildings. Three years after its report castigating the building department, the Alameda County grand jury came back with another censure, this time of the Fire Department, finding that it was not inspecting more than a third of all buildings required to be reviewed annually under California law.
The warning from the civilian panel foreshadowed revelations about the Ghost Ship warehouse after a fire there killed 36 people in December. Despite a fire station being just a block away, the building wasn’t in the Fire Department’s database and no one had ever stepped foot on the premises for a formal inspection. Had inspectors done so, they would have found tangles of electrical wires, blocked exit pathways, a lack of smoke detectors and other safety hazards.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf wants to create an information technology tool that would combine various city systems into an algorithm that could predict which buildings may be at risk for fire hazards or catastrophes. Her plan, announced in an executive order shortly after the Ghost Ship fire, was made more urgent when another blaze ripped through a West Oakland halfway house two weeks ago, killing four people and displacing more than 80.
But there’s no timeline for when that plan will be put into action. A report on the plan provided to the City Council in February doesn’t specify when the project would be completed or how much it would cost.
“Ideally you’d have a big map and all the databases talking to each other,” said Claudia Cappio, an assistant city administrator. Those databases in Oakland include the Planning and Building Department’s software called Accela; the Fire Department’s system; a Public Works app that allows residents to report hazards; dispatch calls for police and medical services; and the program used by the city’s finance arm to collect business taxes.
Until a solution is put into place, the Fire Department and its Fire Prevention Bureau are relying on the existing OneStep database system, purchased in 2009, that Cappio called “incomplete and inconsistent” and “problematic for engine companies.”
The city is exploring the idea of getting the Fire Department a module to use within the Planning and Building Department’s Accela software, which cost Oakland $5 million, with an $800,000 annual license. Adding the fire capabilities to the system would cost upward of half a million dollars, said city spokeswoman Karen Boyd.
In the meantime, Cappio said, “The Fire Department can go to the Planning and Building Department and gain access to their computers. ... The offices are right next door to each other.”
Hoffmann said that doesn’t happen, and as far as he knows, the fire marshal and inspectors use only OneStep.
Records reveal a disjointed picture of the Oakland Fire Department’s database.
In the city’s response to the 2014 grand jury investigation, Oakland officials said that because of the way properties were initially entered into the system — by commercial business licenses — there were often duplicate records of properties or no records at all.
For instance, multiple licenses could be tied to one business, like a hair salon with several stylists, or many small suites could be located within a larger building — but the OneStep system would tell inspectors to go review them all, the city said. Other times, they were instructed to inspect a building that turned out to be a post office box. A converted warehouse like the Ghost Ship wouldn’t have been in the system either, because there was no business license associated with it.
“Some of these places are out of business or they’re in business but they don’t want to pay the license fee,” Hoffmann said.
Firefighters have described occasions when they’ve gone on a medical call, seen a hazardous situation in a property, but couldn’t find the building in the database back at the station house.
At one point in 2014, the problems with OneStep became so extreme that a fire lieutenant was removed from regular duties and put in a full-time assignment that involved reconfiguring the program and washing the database of duplicate addresses, according to the city’s response to the grand jury investigation.
A OneStep representative, who declined to give his name, said that “all we do is just host the data they choose to collect” and that Oakland’s problems are probably caused by how properties were inputted — by business license.
“We work with dozens of fire departments,” he said. “They don’t regret buying our software because it works for them.”
Hoffmann said some of the issues with OneStep can be traced back to training. In September 2015, a firefighter who went on a call to the San Pablo Avenue halfway house wanted to refer the hazardous conditions there to the Fire Prevention Bureau. He did so by checking a referral box in the OneStep system, according to emails released by the city. In fact, Hoffmann said, referrals cannot be made within the database, and the box is supposed to indicate that a referral was made by phone or some other means — not prompt a referral to be sent.
Copyright 2017 San Francisco Chronicle
All Rights Reserved