Oakland’s fire chief acknowledged Thursday the department’s prevention efforts, which include conducting safety inspections of sites such as the Ghost Ship warehouse where at least 36 people died last week, have been hampered by years of budget cuts and hiring freezes.
“Was it the best?” Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said in an exclusive interview with CNN. “No, it wasn’t.”
Reed said department officials were still trying to determine if and when the warehouse on 31st Avenue had ever been inspected by her department. She said it was unclear if the structure was even in the department’s database.
“Right now we are looking through our records,” Deloach Reed said. “I can’t tell you anything right now about that warehouse.”
She added, “But I can tell you that our current fire marshal and the city and the attorneys are all working with the fire department, building and planning, trying to give a definitive answer as to at what point did anyone have access to that warehouse.”
The list of sites for inspectors to visit is generated by the department’s fire marshal, who heads its prevention bureau. Deloach Reed appointed herself to the post for a time while concurrently serving as chief. She did so, she said, while awaiting city council approval of funding for someone else to take over the job full time. State law mandates the post be occupied at all times, she said.
Reed said it’s possible the Ghost Ship site had been vacant for years and “had fallen out of the system.”
It has since been described as a sort of artists’ commune with makeshift improvements and suspect electrical conditions some have characterized as a fire hazard.
“I can’t answer how that warehouse slipped through the cracks and that it bypassed our system — or how it bypassed the city’s system,” the chief said. “But everybody is at the table right now trying to figure out what happened.”
She said it was a time for reflection, not finger pointing.
“We have a bunch of people that are thinking ‘was there something else I could have done’ and that are questioning themselves and we’re all just looking into it and how can we prevent it from happening again,” she said.
Zac Unger, vice president of the union representing Oakland firefighters, blamed the lapse in prevention efforts on Deloach Reed appointing herself to the position while it was vacant.
“She appointed herself, but she was doing the job in name only because she’s the fire chief and has other responsibilities,” Unger said.
The result, he said, was a lack of long-range planning for prevention efforts. For example, Unger said, a full-time fire marshal might have compared the number of buildings on tax roles to those on the inspection list and noticed a discrepancy.
“They’re just scrambling to inspect the buildings that they know about and they don’t have time to get a handle on all the buildings that they don’t know about, which is thousands,” he said.
Unger said the union had complained about the issue monthly until the position was filled about two years ago.
“We have been explicit that those positions need to be filled and that dangerous conditions exist because of this lack of staffing and lack of investment in our fire department infrastructure,” he said.
Deloach Reed denied that her dual role as chief and fire marshal had any negative impact on prevention efforts beyond what had already been done by years of budget cuts and staff reductions.
“What I think is terrible is that we are taking this tragedy where 36 people have lost their lives and utilizing it for a political platform,” she said. “I think right now our priorities are a little messed up.”