Rapid Response: Johannesburg tragedy evokes memories of Ghost Ship fire
Preplanning is critical to identifying the unsafe living conditions in your area
On Aug. 31, 2023, a fire in Johannesburg, South Africa, resulted in the deaths of 73 individuals, trapped in a dilapidated five-story building. For anyone quick to shrug their shoulders at this across-the-Atlantic disaster as something that “can’t happen here,” I would point to the 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, where 36 people died. Clearly, this CAN happen here.
What happened: Two fires, similar devastation
It is reported that candles and warming fires may have been the cause of the Johannesburg fire, although it will likely be some time before we know exactly what happened (if ever, really). No matter, though, because all we really need to know that 73 people died in a building fire. Witnesses recount occupants using makeshift ropes and jumping from upper floors to escape the fire.
With respect to Oakland, we know a lot. That tragedy highlighted problems in the Oakland Fire Department inspection program and resulted in the departure of the fire chief.
The cause of the Ghost Ship fire was never identified.
On the legal front, Derick Almena, the master tenant on the Ghost Ship lease, and his assistant, Max Harris, were charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Harris was acquitted. In 2021, Almena pled guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison and released for time served.
Why it’s important: ‘They’re everywhere’
Are you and your department ready to handle a mass-fatality fire in a dilapidated, illegally occupied, illegally retrofitted building? Well, you better be because these situations can be found all over this country.
What are WE doing to prepare? Whether it’s for a five-story dilapidated building that’s on fire or while you’re performing the cat-in-a-tree rescue, we should be conducting risk-benefit analysis in the emergency environment multiple times every day.
In 2020, Los Angeles firefighters battled a single-story warehouse fire that initially appeared to be a “normal” commercial firefight. The call turned into a near-death experience due to illegally stored hazardous materials and illegally compartmentalized interiors. Eleven firefighters were injured, several of whom were transported to hospitals in serious condition. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation worked with the Los Angles Fire Department to produce a documentary about the fire, known today as the “Boyd Street fire.” (FireRescue1 also held a webinar detailing the incident, available to view here.)
In 2022, we lost three Baltimore firefighters in a dilapidated three-story rowhouse that had fire showing from all three floors – a building constructed in the 1890s that was indeed vacant and had been the site of a previous structure fire. Now, this will not be the place to debate the “aggressive mantra” (it’s not vacant until WE say it’s vacant). I will, however, underscore that firefighters must make quick risk/benefit decisions all the time.
Are you training your firefighters to make these OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) decisions from an educated position? Or are you comfortable pretending you’re Superman, making decisions on your own, compromising the safety of your members?
Preplanning in your response area is critical. We must identify the situations and risks that we’ll face so we can appropriately strategize our future emergency response. Ultimately, our preplanning is all about life safety, primarily for those we serve but also for ourselves. Preplanning is Community Risk Reduction (CRR) at its core.
Use the many resources available in your electronic toolbox to ensure that you prioritize CRR. While it may not feel like it at the moment you’re walking through a filthy restaurant kitchen, warehouse floor or apartment storeroom, it is the things you learn during these visits that can make the difference between life and death – identifying construction intricacies, fire protection and alarm systems, escape routes and roof access points, electrical and other utility controls, unexpected hazards, you name it. You’re likely to find just about any hazard you can imagine if you get out into your response area and look.
Having a preplanning program is great, but the enforcement capacity is likely a different animal. We need to follow our rules and procedures, including any appropriate notifications and postings for observed life safety hazards. Some departments have statutory authority to order corrective actions or evacuations, and some do not. Regardless of your enforcement-authority level, simply knowing the problems exist isn’t good enough.
We must ensure that we’re reporting these problems to the appropriate enforcement entity and that we communicate the issues to other responders in a preplanning program. That communication is an extremely important part of preplanning.
Bigger than “us”
In far too many cases, resolving the issues that allow these types of situations to exist in the first place is well beyond simple solutions, so it’s imperative that we all take action. Having the preplan information is great, however sharing the information and doing something about deficiencies is MORE important for us all.
Chiefs need to engage at the appropriate political and regulatory levels to ensure the safety of their communities. Being a member of the National Fire Protection Association and being engaged with the Congressional Fire Services Institute are great leadership steps to take. And firefighters at all levels must focus on identifying the hazards in advance, taking steps to mitigate/rectify the hazards, and ultimately responding to the emergencies is what we do every day, in every community.
Are YOU doing enough?