I want you to live.
I want you to thrive.
We need you.
This is a post about fire safety with practical advice for making constant improvements.
We’re burying friends. That sucks. Grit your teeth and make some commitments so this happens less often.
Tragic situations often arise out of indifference toward dangerous situations.
We have to do better and this is a team effort.
I want you to internalize some things about safety. Some of this stuff ought to be as normal as knowing how to find a bathroom when you need to pee. Do you know how to find a bathroom in a restaurant you’ve never been to? Think it through. You learned that process and you should be aware of a few more.
I am a huge proponent of lifestyles and jobs that don’t fit into norms. I’m a proponent of figuring out how to make a life in the margins and create space for your creative self to thrive. I want a huge variety of spaces to live, work, play (design, create, party) to thrive. I want places: public, private, and in-between, to be fully used. I want to say all of that, so that when I say this next thing and a lot of other stuff that sound like work and bureaucracy, you hear me.
What I want from you is to take some time to evaluate, document, fix, and educate at the places you go. If you don’t, who will? This is now a sacred responsibility you hold over your life and the lives of those around you.
I do not know Ghost Ship. I don’t know the owners, I don’t know the occupants, and I’m only barely acquainted with some of those who passed. My friends are grieving. My heart is breaking for the entirety of this situation. This is not a critique of that space or that happening. I don’t know enough of the facts. I do know that it could have been one of the other spaces that I am more intimate with. It could be a dozen more similar spaces across the bay and across the country this year. This is a horrible tragedy, and we have to work together to prevent the next one.
If you run a space, venue, or if you’re a master tenant, you have a moral obligation. The legalities are a very important second. If you’re running an event, organization, or house, you have to follow up on all of these steps. You have to follow up on all of these regularly.
I build and run installations and spaces professionally. It was my main job for a couple of years. Lots of the folks around you have other things on their minds, and haven’t necessarily put safety as the top priority. I’ve run this paper by my dad, an Architect in Ohio. I’ve pulled in advice from other live/work workshop space builders and owners. This is good advice, it’s mostly not mine.
I know that so many of these spaces are made in the margins. They’re converted, reclaimed, reused, rebuilt. That’s obvious, it’s not an excuse. Are you safe? You have to care for your own safety. If you are safe you can care for others. Evaluate your surroundings and make informed decisions. The concerns go up the more people, and the more stuff that’s around. Clean and tidy spaces are safer spaces.
Where are the exits? How many are there?
Look for the second exit, don’t just go out the way you came. Most folks will try to go out the way they came.
Are the exits visible? Are they passable? Is something blocking them?
Try the exits. Are they locked? Are they blocked on the other side? Do they open out instead of in?
Can you find the exit if the light goes out?
Look for lights at the top of the exit sign, those should go on when the power goes out.
If you’re a tenant or venue owner, check this, regularly and on purpose. My last office had 80% of the emergency lights fail when the primary power went out. I was pissed and they fixed it in 24 hours, but nobody tested regularly. The thing that got the owner to fix it was me being a squeaky wheel. I showed him photos during the power outage. I walked around the building and checked every sign. We were lucky that it was not an emergency. We were lucky that it was during the day and there were some windows. Battery backed emergency lighting is cheap.
How many people are here?
In the event of an emergency, how long would it take to evacuate any given number of people?
Fire codes aren’t made to make spaces boring. They’re made so you live. Firefighters and fire marshals hate burying people. Learn how a fire marshal plans for occupancy limits, and pay attention to if a space has signs about their occupancy limits. If you’re at a venue and there are no signs for occupancy limits, then the space is likely not up to code in other ways.
Is this your place? Then there are even more questions for you to answer..
When was the last time you tested your smoke alarms?
Put this on your google calendar twice a year. Seriously. Do it. Test it. Establish a system that makes you remember. “It’s almost my (birthday/ half birthday), the day before, I’m gonna check my smoke alarms, buy some spare batteries, and look for testicular cancer.”
Take them to disposal places.
Can I get a metal cabinet on craigslist for this?
Will Cole Hardware/O’Reilly take my used turkey fryer oil?
Is Windex Combustible?
Are building materials and uncovered wood properly stored?
Where’s my oil paint?
OFD has a list of what they look for during an inspection. You should read it, so you know what hazards to look for.
What code requirements will the fire department look for when conducting the inspection?
Following is a list of the most common items which, when maintained improperly have the potential for significant injury to occupants and may cause unnecessary damage to structures.
- Egress (Exiting Components): Doors, latching hardware, door closures must be in good working order, and keeping ALL storage away from exit pathways. Exit signage, exit lighting, and emergency power supplies are working properly. Maintaining the exit system is one of the most important components to the occupants’ safety.
- Extinguishing Systems: Fire sprinkler and standpipe systems and kitchen cooking fire suppression systems must be inspected at intervals required in California Health and Safety Code Title 19, Chapter 5. Click on http://www.archive.org/details... and got to Chapter 5 for more details. Access pathways are not less than 3-feet wide and maintained without obstruction to all system valves, gauges, and connections.
- Fire Extinguishers: Required at exits and in strategic areas of the building to provide access by the occupant along a travel path not to exceed 75 feet. Extinguishers shall be serviced annually, when needle is not in the green, safety tampers or trigger pin is removed or damaged. Click on http://www.archive.org/details... and go to Chapter 3 for more details.
- Electrical: Electrical components are maintained in good working order. Outlet, light, circuit covers are installed and not broken, circuits are properly labeled, access doors to electrical circuits, and panels are labeled, and accessible without obstruction. Improper electrical can cause serious injury, proper maintenance and use of electrical devices can significantly reduce injury.
- Fire/Smoke Alarm Equipment: Smoke alarms are required in ALL residential occupancies. Most alarms have a 10 year shelf life. Owners must provide annual maintenance/service records upon request. Fire alarm systems must be serviced annually and records identifying 100% of all devices have been tested within 12 months prior to the inspection must be provide upon request. Access pathways are at least 3-feet wide and without any obstruction to all panels, power supplies, and devices.
- Permits: Operational permits are required for certain activities. The most common permits; public assembly (50 or more persons), combustible storage (paper, plastic, wood) in excess of 2,500 cubic feet, hazardous material handling/storage. Note: The State Fire Codes identifies 49 separate permits. Contact fire prevention at 510-238-3851 for more information on obtaining operational permits.
- General Housekeeping: Overall building construction maintenance, address visibility, storage organization, equipment maintenance records, and debris free environment.
- Business Tax Certificate: Is displayed in a conspicuous place, current, and available upon request.
- Illumination: Egress pathways (corridors, hallways, stairs, and pathways) are properly illuminated and provided with an emergency power supply.
Let me tell you about intentions. They’re great. Maybe you’re feeling really motivated right now. Things went poorly, and we’re reminded of all the things we need to fix. Use your intentions to make it a reality. Make a list. Your memory is garbage. Write it down. Take pictures. Print them out. Write on them with markers and put them up on the wall. Label them, writing “fix this,” then throw it away only when it’s complete. Make a Trello list, use Post-Its.
If you’re the sort of person who feels like you should tag problems until they’re fixed, then tag it. Spray paint “danger stairs” on the stairs, and then spray paint some super happy faces once you fix them.
If less permanent tagging is your style, then put a date and some words on a Post-It. “Danger Stairs October 2016”. Sign it with your name or initials.You need to document what’s happening now, so that when it does or doesn’t get fixed, that’s also recorded.
Document what gets tested. Write your name and date on an index card and tape it on all four corners next to the smoke alarm. Write the date on the fire extinguisher with a sharpie. Look for existing date stamps on extinguishers.
Don’t let the broken things settle into normalcy. Documenting them and reviewing your documentation should be your constant reminder to fix things and improve your space.
We’ll be presented with things that need mending for the rest of our lives. Document them, prioritize them, and fix them. This is your moral responsibility.
Is this your space? Can you fix it? Do it.
Don’t know how to fix it? That’s your first task. Shout some questions at your search engine or social network of choice:
“Twitter: ‘who knows something about wiring? Things look super sketchy here’”
“Facebook: ‘Who do I know went to engineering school’
“Youtube: How to test a smoke alarm”
“Siri: ‘Find some electricians in the area”
“Library: Can you please help me find books about home wiring? * [bonus, in Oakland you can borrow tools: yo can I borrow some lineman’s pliers?]”
“Wikipedia: United States National Electrical Code, which wire is white”
“Oakland/Alameda County Code Office: Hey I’ve got this outlet that kinda sparks when we turn on the toaster, what should I do?”
“This is complicated and I’m living in a commercially permitted structure… I’m a resident but things are weird, who should I call?” [If you’re reading this, and it’s more complicated than your initial googling, contact me. I will try to help you.]
I’m not suggesting you perform unpermitted electrical or construction work. But I’m also never surprised when this is your best-sounding option. Sometimes, fixing things looks like asking the right people the right questions. Sometimes, it means finding allies with authority, like code officials and tenants’ rights advocates.
There’s an independence that comes with learning to fix things. It’s one of the most liberating things in my whole life. The more I can make or fix, the less I need.
Best I can tell, the building and code department exists to keep you safe, not to kick you out.
Did you make your space better? Tell folks. Share how you did it. Show which youtube videos you watched about fixing your front door hinges. Publicly thank the city workers who helped you sort out your bureaucracy issues. Say something when you notice that someone’s running a wood stove but you can’t find their fire extinguisher.
It’s pretty great to get better at and learn new things, If you’ve gotten this far through the process, then you’ve got something to teach somebody else.
This is life or death. It might look like self-promotion to show off that you learned how to use your fire extinguisher, but it’s life or death to your friends.
When you have an event, tell your staff about all your safety considerations every time.
When you work an event, ask about safety considerations every time.
> “There’s an exit at this corner, and that corner,” or, “If there’s a medical emergency, there’s a landline next door at the gas station”
Some of the people in your life, your warehouse, your office are going to push back. Stay strong. Some of them will hold an ignorance or indifference that borders on malice. I hope you have the strength to push past that. I know that some of these people will be in power over you, your rent, and/or your livelihood. Your first step is safety and survival, but take notice when you run into situations like the ones below and try to either get around or get out. Find loved ones when you need to get out. Find me if you need.
The people you care about may be affected by displacement due to code concerns. Care for you and yourself and then you can help care for them. A garbage landlord may mean death.
If you have the space, you have to confront these attitudes. One of the better ways I’ve found to confront them is to practice the conversation, so when it happens to you, you’re less taken aback.
All of these conversation snippets are fake, but they’re so close to real conversations that I’ve had, that you should look around and be prepared to have them.
you> Hey, your exit is blocked.
them> “Oh yeah, hahaha.”
you> Yeah, ok, let’s sort that out right now, where can we take this stuff?
them> “Outside, but the landlord hates when it’s on the curb.”
you> Ok yeah, but there’s a party. It’s going on the curb tonight, and you should find somebody on craigslist to take it to the dump tomorrow.
them> “Yeah, we’ll get to that.”
you> Ok, I need to stop coming if we don’t fix this in two weeks.
them> “We don’t really have the money”
you> “Yeah, that sucks, can we get something from Urban Ore to fix this? Can we call our landlord? Should we fundraise?”
Be aware of gaslighting, as well.
them> “You’re not seriously worried about that, are you?”
you> Yes, I am. People died.
them> “It’s not that big of a deal.”
you> Fuck that. People died.
them> “Look, you can move out.”
you> I might. I would like a plan and a completion date in 48 hours.
them> “Don’t go, we need you around to make rent.”
you> “I’ve got to go, I had complaints and you didn’t fix them, I have to go for my safety,and I’m filing a complaint for those I love who are still here.”
You should also pay attention to their deflection as self-preservation.
them> “Don’t file a complaint, we’re going to take care of it.”
you> I would like a plan and a completion date in 48 hours, this is really important to me.
For immediate safety, advise folks that when they enter a large or crowded space, look for the second exits. Tendency in an emergency situation is to return the way you came in, but often that is wrong because everyone else is headed there. Be aware of the second and third exists!
Stairs are killers! No handrails, too narrow, they become smoke chimneys if they are not enclosed. Look around for the best stair to exit, enclosed and fire rated.
Long term - Building Codes are for new buildings or renovations. The Fire Code is for existing buildings and is usually (not) enforced by fire marshals or fire departments. Unfortunately, these folks are busy fighting fires or investigating fires. If you see something "sketchy" or you have a crappy landlord who ignores fire safety, call the local fire department and ask how to contact a fire marshal. Request a safety inspection.
Make sure fire extinguishers are available and are charged. This is the second line of defense. The first line is to keep the building orderly with exit paths, egress lights, and exit signs. The third line of defense is smoke detectors, fire alarms, and automatic fire suppression (sprinklers).
Structural stability, fire safety, storage of combustibles: all that is covered under the Fire Code, known as the International Fire Code, revised and published every three years. That code is also the basis for the Building Code. Both are great resources if you want to learn the legalese associated with building design and operations. They cover basic fire safety all the way to hazardous materials storage and management. But the bottom line is this; there are experts who are willing to assist to prevent this type of tragedy. They are called fire marshals. It's their job to make sure buildings are safe. Call one, so you can discuss your ideas with them and see how people can contact them, what services they provide for free. Here is a link, read it.
I sent this to a hackerspace slack I'm a part of. Devon's father was a fire figher and marshal. My edits in `` to help translate fire fighter speak. The bold is also mine.
I'd like to publish his full response here.
You may get help from local fire authorities. But, it may depend what assistance or advice they will give you. They may only assist by inspecting the building. If they inspect, they will be obligated to enforce compliance. If compliance is costly, evictions may ensue.
Reasonable fire safety is a real challenge for people that choose or are forced to live in alternative residences. If the place is unsafe, they should not have to live, work or recreate there. The problem is that to be "safe" may be costly. Particularly for building like the one in Oakland. I.e. re-purposed buildings. Buildings are built for a purpose, such as manufacturing. If you then use it for residential, or, far worse, assembly, it will NOT be safe. Not without a ton of money and renovations.
There are several things that compose fire safety. Fire separations, exits, alarms, suppression. Exits are arguably most important. To assess your own safety you need to consider what separates a fire in another part of the building from me or my exits. A separation must consist of a solid wall or floor with any openings (doors) that are thick enough and THAT ARE KEPT CLOSED. Without closed and adequate doors, there is NO separation. Typically, the biggest weakness are stairways. If they are not fully enclosed with walls and closed doors, they are a major hazard. Second, do I have an adequate exit? If you are not on the first or second floor, you should have two or more protected exits available to you. Third, how will I know if there is a fire in my unit or in another part of the building. If I have direct, plentiful and protected exits, this is less important. If I have to extensively travel through the building to exit, this is critical. If you don not have a working smoke alarm in your sleeping area you will NOT wake up in the event of a fire. If there is no working fire alarm system you will have very little warning, if any, of a fire that starts in another part of the building. Last, are there measures in place to suppress a fire if it starts - such as sprinklers or fire extinguishers. Sprinklers are great, everything else is next to useless.
Fundamentally, people living in marginal accommodations are at significant risk. Good advice is to try to use a building designed for residential, at least. Then, get the smallest building you can, or at least as close to direct exit to grade as you can. People need to be VERY cautious with recreation [underground parties]. It is horrendously risky to attend large gatherings in any buildings that are not provided with many, protected exits.
My bio which might be helpful for credibility - 35 years enforcing fire safety, I've contributed to the development of the Ontario Fire Code, advised on its application and wrote inspection manuals for fire inspectors and I've taught thousands of fire service professionals, building owners and public.
Ian from Ardent wrote about other practical steps. It's good. I got it by email but I heard it's on facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/raindrift/posts/10154177527843437
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I want folks to read this.
Thank you Jessica Lachenal for editing. It was practically nonsense before you helped.
Thank you Dad, for patiently teaching me this stuff my whole life. Thank you for reading and editing this.
5th December 2016
I won't ever give out your email address. I don't publish comments but if you'd like to write to me then you could use this form.
I'm Issac. I live in Oakland. I make things for fun and money. I use electronics and computers and software. I manage teams and projects top to bottom. I've worked as a consultant, software engineer, hardware designer, artist, technology director and team lead. I do occasional fabrication in wood and plastic and metal. I run a boutique interactive agency with my brother Kasey and a roving cast of experts at Kelly Creative Tech. I was the Director of Technology for Nonchalance during the The Latitude Society project. I was the Lead Web Developer and then Technical Marketing Engineer at Nebula, which made an OpenStack Appliance. I've been building things on the web and in person since leaving Ohio State University's Electrical and Computer engineering program in 2007. Lots of other really dorky things happened to me before that, like dropping out of high school to go to university, getting an Eagle Scout award, and getting 6th in a state-wide algebra competition. I have an affinity for hopscotch.