Operation Cleanup in San Gabriel
ON MAY 14, 1956, the San Gabriel Fire Department received a call for a house burning at 609 East Dewey Avenue. Two minutes later the first fire company arrived and found the 70-year-old residence burning completely out of control. A mother and two children were trapped inside and could not be rescued; the father escaped with third-degree body burns only through the efforts of a neighbor who pulled him through a side window.
The fire was undoubtedly the result of a throw rug being moved over a floor furnace. But this certainly cannot be blamed for a house burning to the ground in a matter of several minutes and the death of three persons whose bodies were burned beyond recognition. Reasoning that this tragedy was attributed to many factors, the fire, building and health departments got together to organize an allout program called “Operation Cleanup.” The first procedure was to research the various existing codes and ordinances; by August enough information had been gathered to warrant going ahead and the starting date was set as September 1st.
New municipal philosophy
The basic purpose of “Operation Cleanup” was to rid the City of San Gabriel of all buildings or structures which are structurally unsafe and not provided with adequate egress, or which constitute a fire hazard, or are otherwise dangerous to human life, or which in relation to existing use constitute a hazard to safety and health, or public welfare, by reason of inadequate maintenance, dilapidation, obsolescence or abandonment (Section 203, Uniform Building Code).
This was a new approach toward solving the city’s cleanup problems. Instead of requesting the landowner to merely bring his property up to standard and meet the requirements of the various codes, it was found that not only would the city benefit, but also the property owner if he were to demolish the structure and construct a new one.
San Gabriel went further. Rather than request the owner to pay someone to demolish the building, the fire chief asked permission to do it, using the structure to promote training for the firemen at no expense to the owner. Neighboring fire departments which could be of great assistance to San Gabriel in an emergency were invited to take advantage of this training opportunity.
Good public relations important
A program such as this requires a great deal of basic public relations work to inform the citizens of the intentions. San Gabriel’s fire chief attacked this problem by preparing an “Operation Cleanup” film. It was in color and ran approximately 25 minutes. It had a two-fold objective: To encourage better public relations and, as a training tool, to teach the firemen the “dos and don’ts” of fire fighting. It begins by showing fire stations in the city; depicts the life of a fireman while on duty; shows how an alarm is received; how the men respond and concludes with the burning of two substandard homes, showing how firemen attack the fire, how they are able to protect surrounding buildings, etc. It has been shown to about 4,000 school children.
Building Code has teeth
San Gabriel uses various laws to enforce its program. The primary tool is Section 203 of the Building Code. This specifies what constitutes an unsafe building and rules that all such unsafe buildings are hereby declared to be public nuisances and shall be abated by repair, rehabilitation, demolition, or removal. The Health and Safety Code of the State of California is another useful tool for enforcing this program. The city supplements these two previous codes with various ordinances which cover fire and health hazards.
It might be expected that the hopes for a project as enterprising and involved as this inaugurated by San Gabriel would exceed the results achieved. This has not been the case. On the contrary, the results far surpass all expectations. In the 14 months from September 1, 1956 to October 31, 1957, a total of 26 structures or buildings have been totally demolished. An additional three have been brought up to standard. As of November 1, 1957, there are 33 which are in the processing stage, most of which will be demolished. This is quite a startling record, but it becomes even more impressive when it is remembered that the demolished structures will be replaced with new and modern buildings all financed by private enterprise.
To further emphasize the success of this program, not one of the 29 landowners has had to be prosecuted as a violator. In no instance was the city forced to have the work done itself and all decisions between the city and the landowner were reached amicably.