Our Backyard: Island Safety

The council’s decision to reinstate Alameda’s fire-inspection team was a no-brainer.


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City of Alameda

The deadly Ghost Ship fire has served as a wake-up call not only for the city of Oakland and its woefully inadequate building inspection practices, but also for the city of Alameda. After the Ghost Ship blaze killed 36 people in December, Alameda Fire Chief Doug Long quickly started to assemble a plan to reinstate the Island’s fire-inspection team, which the city council disbanded in 2009 in a cost-cutting move.

Long determined that Alameda had failed to conduct fire safety inspections on more than 3,000 structures in the past decade and that 70 percent of the required inspections of restaurants, warehouses, apartment buildings, and other commercial businesses had not been done. The city has no idea whether those buildings are safe, and if a blaze breaks out in one of them structures, firefighters won’t know what to expect when they arrive.

At an April council meeting, Long said it was vital to restore the fire-inspection team in order to “enhance the safety of the community for all Alamedans, including for firefighters.”

Long proposed hiring a new fire captain to take over as fire marshal, because the city has had no full-time fire marshal since 2009 (Long has been serving as both chief and fire marshal). He also called for hiring two firefighters who would work full time as inspectors. In total, Long estimated the cost of reinstating the fire-inspection team would be about $800,000 a year. But he said the city would offset part of those expenses with the addition of about $355,000 in yearly inspection-fee revenue. Long also proposed one-time startup costs of roughly $190,000 to purchase new vehicles and equipment.

The council approved Long’s plan in a 3-2 vote, with Councilmembers Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Jim Oddie, and Malia Vella voting in favor. Oddie called the move “crucial” to improving Island safety. Mayor Trish Spencer and Councilmember Frank Matarrese voted against Long’s hiring plan (although Matarrese voted to buy the equipment).

Spencer contended that the city should hire civilian inspectors rather than sworn firefighters in order to save money, noting that the city has huge unfunded pension liabilities. But Long pointed out that hiring sworn firefighters would give the department much-needed backup personnel during emergencies.

In short, he and the council majority were right: reinstating the fire-inspection team was a no-brainer.

 

Our Backyard is an occasional column by senior editor Robert Gammon.

 

Published online on May 31, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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