Fire Prevention Bureau ❘ By LAURA BAKER
In fire prevention, our priority is to prevent fires and make our communities safe. At no time should we allow for an event where there is a significant loss of life. The Ghost Ship Fire that occurred in Oakland, California, on December 2, 2016, resulted in the loss of 36 lives. In hindsight, this tragedy never should have happened. However, diminishing resources, a lack of communication between departments, and a complacency for inspection and code enforcement created an environment where a loss of this magnitude was possible.
A Wake-Up Call
The investigation that followed the Ghost Ship Fire identified a series of factors that contributed to its incredible death toll, which included the following:
- The warehouse had been illegally converted into living spaces.
- On the night of the fire, the space was used to host an electronic music party, far exceeding recommended occupancy loads.
- The stairs were made of unstable planks and pallets.
- The interior formed a maze-like labyrinth of makeshift hallways and corridors.
- The “live/work” cubicle spaces were constructed of makeshift “walls” such as pianos, windows, wood benches, lumber, and numerous other scavenged items.
- The building was not sprinklered.
- The building was powered using ad-hoc electrical systems made of extension cords and power strips, which drew power from the body shop next door.
- The building did not have a license for housing or entertainment.
- The scene contained many possible causes, including electrical malfunction, candles, burning incense, smoking materials, and open flames, but the exact cause could not be determined because of the extensive damage that occurred.
After this incident, the Tucson (AZ) Fire Department (TFD) asked itself, “Could a similar event happen here?” To those who had worked in the downtown area or in our Fire Prevention Division long enough, the answer was apparent. In fact, the TFD’s Fire Prevention Division addressed this concern before. In 2010, fire inspectors had identified several art warehouses located at the heart of downtown Tucson that, like the Ghost Ship, housed a number of working studios that doubled as living spaces. At the time, we made great efforts to clean up the warehouses and bring the structures up to code, but this took nearly seven years. Were there other structures with similar risks present? Had we done all we could to identify and eliminate the risk?
The Ghost Ship Fire provided an ominous wake-up call that prompted the TFD to revisit these concerns. After December 2, 2016, TFD crews began searching for buildings with characteristics similar to the Ghost Ship with a greater sense of urgency. One building in particular—125 E. Pennington—caught the attention of the firefighters on TFD Engine 2; as that crew assessed the site for potential hazards, they noticed many potential code violations. Realizing the risk this posed to building occupants, they voiced their concerns to the Fire Prevention Division.
In response, TFD’s Prevention Truck 1 (PT01), which is staffed by two certified inspectors, followed up on those concerns by conducting a thorough inspection of the building. On inspection, they found a multistory, mixed-use building with a maze-like interior that incorporated makeshift living spaces housed alongside a music recording studio and a variety of artist studios. Although the building was not being used as a place of assembly, it had many of the same risk factors as the Ghost Ship. There were multiple signs of open flame use, discarded smoking materials, and makeshift electrical wiring including extension cords and power strips. Some of the major items out of compliance in the multiple page inspection report were the following:
- An out-of-service fire alarm system.
- Major concerns with the sprinkler system.
- Missing or broken exit signs/lights.
- Stairways that were blocked or locked.
- Blocked exits.
- Makeshift electrical wiring.
- The presence of a high fire load in work/live units.
- Flammable material hanging on walls in recording studios.
- The presence of hazardous materials.
- The presence of improperly stored flammable materials.
The inspection report also detailed many additional items the property owner needed to address before the building would be considered code compliant, the first being to get the fire alarm and sprinkler systems operational and in service.
When Community Risk Reduction Works
At 0145 hours on July 17, 2017, a full alarm was dispatched to 125 E. Pennington for smoke showing and alarms sounding. On arrival, TFD crews located the area where the fire had started, which was contained to a small workspace on the second floor. Fortunately, the outcome resulted in no loss of life, no civilian or firefighter injuries, and very little property damage. What could have resulted in an extremely dangerous—if not tragic—event was prevented by a working fire sprinkler system, which had activated and properly controlled the fire.
This was a major win for our community, accomplished through collaboration and teamwork between the Operations and Fire Prevention Divisions. If not for our observant field crews communicating their concerns to Fire Prevention and PT01’s inspectors ensuring that the building was code compliant and safe, the outcome could have been tragically different. The expertise and professionalism of all involved and their ability to work together as a community risk reduction team ensured that we did not repeat the tragedy of the Ghost Ship Fire in our community. Community risk reduction is, at its core, about connecting problems with solutions, which requires frequent and effective communication and collaboration among all stakeholders.
Changing the Culture from Reactive to Proactive
Events like the Ghost Ship Fire, which result in a significant loss of life, cause all of us to pause and ask, “What could have been done to prevent such a tragedy?” For the TFD, the answer was simple: community risk reduction. The TFD is working hard to build a culture focused on the community risk reduction process that, when put into practice, can prevent future tragedies like the Ghost Ship Fire. This effort includes training its members to recognize risk and apply preventive strategies in the field while simultaneously collaborating to develop solutions and eliminate risk across divisions, ranks, and specialties. The TFD is changing the culture from reactive to proactive and empowering its staff to work together to solve the problems they encounter in the community. The 125 E. Pennington incident provides one example of how the community risk reduction process is working for the TFD.
To all firefighters: The next time you run across a building that poses a risk, do not be complacent and assume someone else will address it. Proactively work with your Fire Prevention Division to ensure that the building no longer poses a risk to you or those occupying the building.
To members of the public: Rest assured that your fire department is working around the clock to protect you. The TFD believes in community risk reduction, which requires everyone to do their part to build a safer community. You have a role in the safety of your community because “fire is everyone’s fight.”
LAURA BAKER is a 23-year member of and an assistant chief with the Tucson (AZ) Fire Department (TFD). She also oversees the TFD’s communications, medical administration, and fire prevention. Baker has previously served as the TFD’s deputy chief of training, fire prevention, and operations. She has a bachelor of science degree in business administration from the University of California—Berkeley, an associate degree in paramedicine from Pima Community College, and a master of science degree in fire service administration from Arizona State University. Baker also completed the Executive Fire Officer Program. She is the former president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services and serves as a member of the Vision 20/20 Steering Committee.