Thursday , April 27 2017
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Regarding the Oakland ‘Ghost Ship’ warehouse fire

We are devastated that this happened, and our hearts go out to the victims, families of the victims of this fire and to the responders who continue to deal with this incident on a daily basis.

In our nation’s history, there have been many fire incidents that have shocked us. The Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, Conway’s Theater fire in Brooklyn, the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky; the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, and the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, killed nearly 1,200 people. Sadly, the Oakland Ghost Ship now becomes part of this unwanted legacy.

As Fire Marshal of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, I would love to say that there is no way this could ever happen here. But the fact of the matter is that no matter how much the jurisdiction provides inspections, and tries to educate the public on the dangers of such occupancies, I cannot say that this is something that could not happen here. It absolutely could.

As you can imagine, I’ve received a lot of questions about what happened, and more still about what we can all do to prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring again. While it is too early to comment on the specifics of what happened at the Oakland Ghost Ship, there are some things that everyone can do now to make sure that they and their loved ones are safe and hopefully spare families from the anguish suffered by the families of the victims in Oakland.

The first, and probably most important thing is to familiarize yourself with the exits of a building or room everywhere you go. Instinctively, you know how to get out of your house should there be an emergency. But even if you are in a new building, you should still know how to get out. It is important to also know multiple ways out, and not just the way you came in. As a fire professional, I can tell you, without hesitation, that unless the other ways are blocked, I am not going out the way I came in during an emergency. Everybody is going that way. Buildings are built with multiple exits for reasons, one of which is that everyone needs access to exiting, and the way you came in is only a portion of the total exiting provided for any building, unless it is a very small space. The way you came in is not going to be able to handle everybody at the same time, so know another way.

At any point in a building, when it’s required to have multiple exits, you should always be able to see a sign with the word “EXIT” that is lit, visible from 100 feet away, and will either be in green or red/orange writing. Many places also have evacuation plans that are posted on walls throughout the business. Take time to familiarize yourself with these, as they are there to help you in an emergency. For reference, at no time was anyone in Oakland more than 75 feet from the outside of the building.

I cannot stress this enough. If you cannot see the way to get out, your life is in imminent danger.

If a particular business or location is extremely cluttered, and your gut tells you that it probably isn’t safe to be there, your gut is probably right. As tough as it is to do, you should consider going to some other business until the location in question is safe. You are welcome to contact us here at the fire department to let us know about these kinds of conditions. While we try to get into as many businesses as we can, as often as we can, we still have limited resources to look at all possible locations within our jurisdiction. Having your eyes and ears could certainly help.

Other things such as knowing the location of fire extinguishers, knowing the location of fire alarm pull stations, and whether or not a business has fire sprinklers or not are all additional ways to make sure that you and your family are safe. But the fact of the matter is that if you do not know how to get out in an emergency, much of the protection afforded by these safety measures is useless. The only one of those three protections that has the best chance of preventing a tragedy is a sprinkler system, which will operate automatically. Despite this, fires still produce smoke which can be just as deadly. Fire extinguishers are for when the fire has already started, and may be beyond the capability of the available extinguishers. Fire alarm systems only activate after the problem has reached such a magnitude as to have activated the devices.

A word about fire alarm systems. I was recently in a location with a lot of other people, and the fire alarm went off. You would think that people would have moved towards the exits, however, this was not the case. Everybody stayed where they were at, and looked around. Some even plugged their ears, because the fire alarm noise was hurting their ears.

If you hear a fire alarm, you need to make your way to an exit.

While it is true that a large number of fire alarm activations are false, not all of them are. Your only ally in a fire situation is time. If you ignore the sound that is telling you to get out in enough time, you lose that resource.

Keep in mind that older fire alarm systems may not sound the same as the modern systems. If you hear anything that sounds like an alarm (a constantly ringing bell, and intermittently ringing bell, a solid or intermittent horn sound, or simply just flashing strobe lights in a place that you would not expect them), your first instinct should be to evacuate and figure out what the sound is later. Waiting could prove deadly.

If you have children or loved ones who frequent live music venues or nightclubs, talk with them about some of the things in this article. This is especially important since young people tend to have an air of invincibility about them, and don’t believe something like this could happen to them. So far, all of the victims identified in the Oakland tragedy were under 35 years old, with many of them much younger. Let them know that it is okay to go somewhere else, and to not stay in a situation that isn’t safe.

If you are aware of any situation that you feel is dangerous in a commercial building, please let us know, and we will do everything we can to determine if a danger exists, and abate the problem ourselves. If for some reason we can’t, we will get somebody else who can fix the problem. This is our job, and we take it very seriously because we do not want to have this happen ever again, no matter where it occurs.

We can be reached at (925) 941-3300. Please stay safe. And please share this information. We can help get the right resources to people, no matter where they are.

– Robert Marshall, Fire Marshal, Contra Costa County Fire Protection District

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