OAKLAND — In what an expert calls a “huge failure,” hundreds of residential and commercial buildings across Oakland were never inspected after firefighters flagged fire dangers and referred them for follow-up, including more than 200 apartment buildings housing thousands of residents, an investigation by the Bay Area News Group has found.
Records acquired from the city covering 2011 until early this year show that firefighters referred 879 properties for fire code issues to the Bureau of Fire Prevention, a number that includes the apartment buildings, plus commercial buildings and several schools.
But 615 (79 percent) of the properties flagged for referral were never inspected by the bureau, a cross-check of the data obtained through multiple public records requests show. Only 264 (21 percent) of the referred properties had subsequent inspections, and only a handful of them were conducted within the first month. It often took months or years before the visits occurred.
Without follow-up visits, the city has no way of knowing whether the flagged problems were fixed, and no ability to force a property owner to comply.
The information shows the referral problem was far more widespread than officials acknowledged, even as Mayor Libby Schaaf promised this spring to more than double the number of inspectors and fix problems. At the time, Oakland had six inspectors for the entire city, which included those responsible for inspecting hills properties for overgrown vegetation.
“It’s a huge failure,” John DeHaan, a veteran fire investigator who runs a consulting business, said of the 79 percent failure-to-inspect rate. “What’s the point of having firefighters say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem,’ and not having anyone do something about it? That’s terrible.
“I’m staggered that 79 percent of notices never got checked,” he said.
And those are just the buildings that caught someone’s attention. Many commercial buildings throughout the city have never been inspected, according to records of 179,000 inspections performed since 2010 obtained by this news organization, despite city law requiring that it be done annually. After the Ghost Ship fire, the requirement was changed to every two years.
In fact, the complete disarray in the city’s fire-inspection services might have continued if not for the Dec. 2 Ghost Ship fire. The blaze broke out during a late-night dance party at the warehouse-turned-arts colony in the city’s Fruitvale District, trapping 36 people who perished trying to find a way out. The building on 31st Avenue, which was being illegally used for residences, had never been inspected and there are no records that it was ever referred to the fire prevention bureau even though fire personnel had been inside.
While investigating another fire in a four-story San Pablo Avenue halfway house in which four people died on March 27, this news organization also uncovered that a software program used by the fire department to make referrals does not work.
A firefighter who had been in the building in 2015 marked the referral box on his online report, but nothing was done because it didn’t get transmitted by the faulty software.
Fire officials are now blaming flaws in the OneStep software database program and a lack of staff as the reasons referred properties go unnoticed.
Fires, no inspections
The analysis by this news organization found that there were fires in 15 other buildings where a referral was made but no inspection occurred. The blazes ranged from minor stove fires to a torched church and machinery business as well as a hazardous materials incident.
One of those fires involved a vacant convalescent home on Bancroft Avenue in East Oakland. It had been flagged with a referral in February 2016, but no one got there before the building, wedged between an apartment complex and a house, burned early on the morning of Dec. 11, some 10 months later.
A man who lives next door with his sister recalled the two-alarm blaze, which forced him to flee his home as flames came within feet of his residence.
“It was scary,” said the man, who would only give his name as Sebastian. Next door, burned junk, including charred wheelchairs, was piled in front of the scorched building, its windows covered with plywood. More than seven months after the fire, with the cause still undetermined, the smell of burned building materials lingered as the building awaits demolition.
“This building has burned at least three times in the past and been red-tagged and condemned,” Oakland Fire Lt. Ryan Meineke wrote in his report of the December fire. “I called for a board up crew and the city building inspector again.”
The report noted the building’s sprinkler system failed to operate because it was turned off.
Asked if the fire department’s failure to inspect the building worried him, Sebastian replied, “It does. I didn’t know about that.
“I guess this is Oakland,” he added. “You can’t really expect it.”
Staffing shortages, miscommunication
Firefighters can make referrals for a variety of reasons. They may notice something amiss during a medical call to a building, for example. Often, they make the referrals for additional scrutiny during routine, city-required inspections of commercial properties and state-required inspections of apartment buildings, medical facilities and schools.
Ideally, those referrals lead to visits from civilian fire inspectors, well-versed in the fire code, who conduct a more thorough investigation, forcing an owner to correct violations or shut the building down.
Fire department sources said the referrals are made only for serious problems that could start fires or impede people fleeing a blaze. Such problems include a lack of sprinklers, smoke detectors, or fire extinguishers; improperly marked or inaccessible emergency exits; or improperly stored flammable materials.
“If referrals are coming from line firefighters … that should be top priority,” said Mark Grissom, a former city inspector who is now a wildlands firefighter for the federal government. “That should be inspected by a competent inspector within 24 to 48 hours.
“It’s totally shocking…. I would not be surprised if there’s another major fire in Oakland down in the flats or in the hills before all this is settled,” Grissom added.
Interim fire Chief Darin White would not agree to an interview but did respond via email. White blamed the lack of staff in the fire department and fire-prevention bureau for the failure to perform timely inspections and for the department not upgrading the software.
“We are addressing these issues in part through the adoption of the new Accela data management platform and by building in backup redundancies as we strategically grow our staff,” he wrote. “The city has retained a consulting firm to assess inspection processes, and replacing the database is also a part of overall system improvements.”
Fire Marshal Miguel Trujillo, head of the fire prevention services, did not return multiple messages.
Neither a statement by the fire chief, nor one made on his behalf by a spokesman, directly addressed what inspection data show: Hundreds of referrals made as many as six years ago were ignored or lost.
Six senior department officers, all lieutenants and captains, each made more than 40 referrals, topped by Capt. Sean Laffan, who made 63. Laffan didn’t return messages.
Before the San Pablo Avenue fire, Laffan exchanged emails with assistant fire marshal Maria Sabatini, who explained that there’s an ongoing miscommunication between firefighters and inspectors on how to properly refer buildings for inspection.
“Sean, when you say the inspection was referred to the (Fire Prevention Bureau) on a specific date, can you tell me what that means to most (firefighters)?” Sabatini wrote. “I’ve learned some (firefighters) think that when the ‘referred’ tab is clicked in OneStep, that an inspector is automatically notified. (This is not true). Do you think it means someone picked up the phone and called the FPB, or sent an email? Not looking to hang anyone here, just really trying to figure out how to smooth this out.”
She added how busy and short-staffed inspectors were, and how she would work on creating proper referral “reporting guidelines.”
Based on his experience with the department, Grissom said safety wasn’t the bottom line. He sat in meetings where Oakland inspectors were told to give priority to higher-end buildings with modern or upgraded fire-prevention systems because property owners paid for those inspections.
Checking sprinklers and alarms are high-revenue generators for the department with strong likelihood of receiving payment, compared to rundown, older properties owned by people who cannot or will not pay, he said. California law allows departments to charge fees for routine inspections the state fire code requires they perform.
Standing outside a Fruitvale Avenue apartment building that was referred to the Fire Prevention Bureau in 2011 but never inspected, a tenant called the situation “Awful. But I can’t afford anywhere else.”
That tenant, who asked not to be identified because of fear of retribution from the building’s owner, said there are no fire extinguishers there, which state law requires in apartment buildings. The tenant has never seen fire inspectors visit the building, even after a fire destroyed one unit and damaged others more than five years ago. She said she must run extension cords throughout her unit due to an outdated electrical system.
The referral dead-ends are only the most recent department woes to come to light.
In 2015, the state stripped the Oakland Fire Department of its responsibility to inspect hazardous material sites after years of problems. An Alameda County grand jury in 2014 found deep flaws in a program to inspect commercial properties, saying more than a third had not been inspected. The Oakland City Auditor in 2013 criticized the lax enforcement of Oakland hills vegetation inspections, which were designed to prevent a repeat of the 1991 conflagration that killed 25 people and destroyed 3,000 homes. Then-fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed even threatened to sue a resident who criticized her and the hills inspection program at a public meeting in January.
At an eight-unit apartment building on Park Boulevard that was referred for a follow-up inspection in January 2012 but not visited since, resident Decovan Rhem, 45, said he was concerned by the lack of action and also that the city did not have enough inspectors to cover Oakland’s thousands of apartment buildings.
His neighbors, Doug Alexander and Shirley Moore, agreed.
“This is very troubling,” Alexander said. Moore, who’s lived in the building more than 20 years, said: “I haven’t seen the fire department in as long as I can say. I wish they would come around.”
The data show:
Fire department employees made 879 referrals between Jan. 4, 2011 and March 6, 2017, but 79 percent of the properties were never inspected.
* Referrals were made at 13 school buildings. Only four of them were inspected since the order was submitted, one of them 39 months later.
* Referrals at 273 apartment buildings resulted in only 57 inspections. Of those, eight occurred within a month.
* Fires occurred in three residential buildings that were referred but never inspected. Each appeared to be minor. and it was not clear if any of them were caused by problems that firefighters specifically flagged.
* Referrals were made at 530 commercial properties ranging from industrial sites in the Port of Oakland to small businesses, which Oakland inspects under a city ordinance in addition to annual inspections of apartment buildings, schools and medical facilities mandated by state law. Of those commercial properties, 419 never received an inspection.
* Fires broke out at 10 of the commercial properties that never received follow-ups, including a 2-alarm blaze at a closed convalescent home on Bancroft Avenue and a downtown office building on Webster Street in 2012 that gutted two floors. That fire came five months after a referral that received no follow-up.
(c)2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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