Friday night's warehouse fire in Oakland is one of the most deadly indoor fires in the U.S. in the past half-century. Even as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and fire officials focus on recovering the dead and sifting through debris, questions are emerging about how to enforce basic fire codes in buildings that serve underground artists.
It's no longer common in the United States, as it once was, to have mass casualties from theater and nightclub fires. Over the past century, safety measures have diminished the number of deaths from fire when people are packed into tight spaces, under low lights, with few exit routes.
Tragically, late in the evening of Dec. 2, furiously hot flames trapped a lively young crowd during an electronic music event in a building called the Ghost Ship, killing at least 36 people. The warehouse was illegally repurposed as an artists' collective with living and work spaces. The venue was permitted as a one-story warehouse, not an entertainment or housing venue -- an important distinction because the codes and standards that apply to a building depend on its use. The safety requirements for a nightclub, for example, are much different from those for a storage facility.
James Pauley, the president of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), says it's critical that when the use of a building changes, authorities must be informed so they can enforce the proper codes for public safety.
Pauley worries that tinder boxes like the Ghost Ship fly under the radar of authorities far too often.
"We know a lot of revitalization of warehouses is going on," he says. "I'm concerned it's a bigger problem than we think it is in many cities."
History Reflects the Importance of Refining the Fire Code
Safety measures often evolve out of the lessons authorities gain after the flames die, but unfortunately sometimes it takes multiple fires to hammer home change. For example, locked exit doors trapped many workers in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City that killed 145 people; 31 years later, locked exits also trapped many people in the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston where 492 people lost their lives. The latter was the second most deadly fire in the 20th century; the worst was the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago, where 602 people died.
Over the years, fire alarms, fire escapes, fire drills, sprinkler systems and less combustible building materials have all been added or improved to save lives.
Lessons Learned Over the Years
The last surge of large-scale indoor fires occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Pauley says many of the final tweaks to the fire code were made during that era.
“For instance the MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas led to numerous additional changes in hotel spaces and high-rise fire safety,” says Pauley. Other large-scale fires in hotels like the LaSalle, Winecoff, Stouffer’s and DuPont Plaza all led to accommodations that are more resistant to fires today.
National live/work building codes are relatively new. They require specific parameters including size limitations, occupancy compatibility, egress capacity, fire sprinkler and fire alarm systems, as well as structural, ventilation and accessibility requirements. They were added to the International Building Code in 2009. California adopted the requirements two years later.
The good news is -- they seem to be working. Last year 42 people died in nine building fires in the U.S., the lowest number ever recorded.
'It will never happen to me'
Pauley says it's too early to know what the lessons will be from Oakland's fire. The investigation is ongoing, but he says everyone needs to take individual responsibility. Every time he enters a new space he scans for danger. He scouts for exits, blocked areas or debris piled up in the corner. If a building is unsafe, he recommends immediately retreating.
“Part of the equation is the complacency that people have around fire,” he stresses. “People believe a fire will never happen to me. It won’t occur in the building that I’m in. But as we see -- when a fire does occur, tragic circumstances result. So, it really is in everyone’s best interest to talk about fire safety.”
An NFPA review of fires over the past 10 years showed that smoke alarms were missing or inoperable in more than two-thirds of the catastrophic multiple-death fires.
Note to self: "Do not leave the fire alarm disassembled on the kitchen counter for several days when it runs out of batteries!"