Tragic “Ghost Ship” Oakland Warehouse Fire Shows Need for Stronger Life Safety Code Violation Enforcement

Another tragic fire at a large public gathering reminds us that life/fire safety issues can not be mitigated by laws alone. A horrific fire at the Oakland warehouse known as the “Ghost Ship” has led to the deaths of at least 36 people. The warehouse was used as a residence and art studio for many of the victims as well as a party venue. The building was zoned and coded ONLY for commercial use. In fact, there was a history of code violations. There are laws regarding zoning and life safety that were knowingly violated by the tenants at the Oakland warehouse. Life safety rules are designed to keep the public safe. Rules like keeping egress paths cleared, illuminated, and marked are basic life safety codes in modern society. Strict enforcement at the “Ghost Ship” may have led to fewer deaths or even prevented the tragedy. Complaints were lodged about the warehouse, but the wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly. Now, the District Attorney’s Office has launched a criminal investigation into the incident.

 

Our blog posting of February 4, 2013 “Surviving a Nightclub Fire” offers some advice about how to 1) avoid or 2) increase chances of surviving such an event. It also offers guidance for building owners/managers.

Historical Influences on Emergency Requirements

Tragedies such as the Bangladesh Clothing Factory Fire earlier this week highlight the need for emergency preparedness, including proper exit signage and emergency egress lighting. Unfortunately, a number of similar tragedies have shaped the laws and requirements throughout the United States:

 

 
  • On February 2, 1860 the six-story Elm Street Tenement in New York City caught fire killing 20. This fire along with a similar earlier fire led to a state law, the first in the nation, requiring fire escapes on all buildings over 6 stories, and multiple exits in new buildings.
  • On January 13, 1908, fire during a stage play at the Rhoads Opera House in Boyertown, Pennsylvania killed 171, one-tenth of the town’s population. As a result of the disaster, Pennsylvania’s first fire law was enacted in 1909.
  • On March 29, 1953, the Littlefield’s Nursing Home Fire in Largo, Florida claimed 33 lives. The fire shocked the community and led to statewide nursing home reforms.
 

Read about other historical events that shaped fire code requirements in your own state (as well as current code requirements) using our Fire Code Map.