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6 ways fire officers can prep for Ghost Ship-like fires

While the large societal problems are daunting, company officers can play a role in preventing and mitigating disaster at unauthorized-use sites


In this Dec. 13, 2016, file photo, flowers, pictures, signs and candles, are placed at the scene of a warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

The high loss-of-life fire that broke out in an old warehouse in Oakland, Calif. in the late evening of Dec. 2, 2016 was a man-made disaster. And it won’t be the last in the United States.

The 36 people who died in the blaze are the latest victims of an ongoing and escalating conflict in our nation’s cities between gentrification and affordable housing.

Local governments aggressively pursue real estate developers – and their investment dollars – to rehabilitate decaying warehouses and commercial structures. Their goal is to reverse declines in property tax revenues by reversing urban flight and attracting people to come back to cities to live.

That should be a good thing, right?

Yes, it is. However, those developers are looking for the maximum return on their time and money investment. So, they convert those properties into upscale condominiums, retail stores and restaurants.

At the same time, affordable housing options for young people in particular – many of whom work in those shops and stores – diminish, forcing them to seek low-rent housing in urban life rafts like the Ghost Ship.

And there are property owners who are more than happy to take their money.

Obviously, these broader societal issues are not going to be addressed or fixed by the company fire officer. This is definitely above all of our pay grades.

What follows is not meant to minimize or denigrate zoning laws, occupancy codes or fire prevention codes. Nor is it meant to minimize the need for trained and competent fire inspectors conducting regular fire inspections of buildings, not just businesses.

But the realities company officers and firefighters face in jurisdictions where these urban life raft occupancies are open for business need to be confronted. Adequate numbers of fire inspectors are not going to magically appear, and all buildings that should be inspected for fire safety issues are not going to suddenly get those inspections on a regular basis.

What the company officer and their crew can do is become very good at preventive firefighting by taking these six steps.

1. Identify sites

Identify the urban life rafts in the district, because what you don’t know can hurt you and your firefighters.

2. Know the boss

Get to know the building owners, or in the case of absentee owners, get to know the local person in charge. This may be the person who rents spaces, whether the space is residential or non-residential.

Build a relationship of trust that allows you both to work toward making the best of a bad situation. The Ghost Ship fire in Oakland certainly provides you with some currency to develop such a relationship, but that example has a very short shelf-life.

3. Make an incident plan

Collect and analyze pre-incident plan information from site visits to develop the best incident action plan for a specific structure.

Based on that intel, the best strategy may be one that focuses on maximizing the potential for occupants to self-rescue for a variety of reasons including maze-like layouts, overabundance of interior furnishing and stuff, and a limited number of exits (because you can’t be trying to get firefighters, hose and equipment in through the same openings that people are trying to use to get out).

4. Make a tactical plan

Create tactical plans to support a life-safety strategy. That may include how to aggressively control the flow path; how to aggressively protect identified means of egress; how to aggressively ladder the structure for removal of occupants; and how to increase response from EMS resources on the initial alarm to handle expected casualties.

5. Load the plans

Be proactive in getting your tactical plans and pre-incident plan information into your department’s computer-aided dispatch system and whatever incident command software used by your department.

The best plans are of no use to anyone if they can’t be accessed and used within minutes of your arrival at the scene of a fire.

6. Share the plan

Inform and educate the crews in your stations and your surrounding companies or mutual aid departments about your incident action plans and your supporting information. Again, the best plans are of no use to anyone if no one knows about them.

Sadly, Ghost Ship is not likely to be the last mass-casualty fire at a structure playing host to an illegal or unauthorized use. And while solving the problem at its root is beyond the fire officer’s power, being ready for it is within their power.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.