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Editorial: Six years after Ghost Ship inferno, prevention effort must improve


This upcoming week will mark the sixth anniversary of the infamous Ghost Ship inferno that killed 36 people in an Oakland warehouse. Last month was the 31st anniversary of the firestorm in the hills to the east that claimed 25 lives, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damage.

Both tragedies haunted the Bay Area for years. Both were preventable. But prevention hinges on an aggressive and comprehensive fire-inspection program. Sadly, years later, city Fire Department officials still didn’t seem to get that.

The good news is that there’s a relatively new chief in town. Reginald Freeman has made changes in his leadership team over the past 1½ years, and he insists that the lax practices of the past will not continue. We hope not.

Especially after a new report by Oakland’s independent city auditor, Courtney Ruby, finds that, as of September, nine of the department’s 19 fire inspectors and fire-inspector supervisors lacked the required certification for the job. Four of those nine never had the certification, and the other five had allowed certification to lapse. These are critical workers whom residents depend on to prevent conflagrations.

Freeman says the inspectors had completed the necessary training, but the required certification paperwork had not been completed. They have been given until the end of the year to complete it or they will be terminated, he said.

Equally disturbing, the fire department last year misled the auditor about the certifications. After receiving a whistleblower complaint, the Auditor’s Office was first told in August 2021 that all employees were current in their certifications. But when Ruby received another complaint, she initiated her own investigation, which led to this month’s report.

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Such deceit or sloppiness from the Fire Department cannot be tolerated — especially when people’s lives are on the line. Freeman says the assistant chief who provided the inaccurate information has since retired.

Freeman also says that since he became chief in April 2021, the Fire Prevention Bureau has been reorganized, a new fire marshal has been hired, and the department is now on pace to complete all of its state-mandated inspections in 2022 and 95% compliance for the vegetation-management-inspection program in the hills for two consecutive years.

Those numbers are a marked improvement from the past. But only if the inspections are being conducted by people with proper certification. The certifications are essential to ensure that inspectors are properly trained and up-to-date on fire-prevention strategies. They’re not optional. And certainly not in Oakland, which has an ugly history of falsified and botched inspections that pre-dates the Ghost Ship fire.

The new report is not the first time the city has called out certification deficiencies. A 2020 audit found the Fire Prevention Bureau had no central tracking of individual inspectors’ training and certifications.

Freeman promises that, six years after Ghost Ship and three decades after the Oakland hills fire, the Oakland Fire Department is now changing. The past “lack of performance and lack of accountability is utterly unacceptable,” he said.

We hope so. Lives depend on it.

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