What Oakland Can Learn From Rhode Island's Response to Deadly 2003 Fire
By Bob Egelko
When a rock band's fireworks display exploded into flames at a crowded Rhode Island nightclub in February 2003, killing 100 people, fire safety in the nation's smallest state was governed by a patchwork of mostly outdated local regulations.
As state fire official Keith Burlingame recalled, a state with 39 cities and towns had close to 80 local fire districts, each with its own standards. And virtually all of them exempted older buildings that had been in compliance with the modest regulations in effect in 1976. Unless they underwent major renovations or expansion, the regulations allowed those buildings to avoid any later safety upgrades.
All that changed after the deadly blaze at the Station nightclub. Rhode Island's response -- a flurry of building inspections statewide, followed by enactment of some of the nation's strongest safety laws -- holds possible lessons for Oakland, where the fire that took 36 lives at the Ghost Ship warehouse revealed glaring holes in the city's fire inspection system.
As The Chronicle's Matier & Ross reported Wednesday, while California law requires cities to enforce the state's fire-safety standards, Oakland fire inspectors are examining only 6,000 of the 12,000 commercial buildings they are supposed to check out each year.
Despite numerous complaints about accumulated trash, graffiti and other blight at the Ghost Ship, the building had not been inspected for at least 30 years, an Oakland planning director admitted Wednesday. Residents there described seeing exposed wiring and noticing other safety hazards, including a lack of smoke detectors and alarms, before the fire that started Friday night. A city inspector visited the building Nov. 17, but he was unable to gain entrance and never returned.
In Rhode Island, the fire at the Station in the town of West Warwick galvanized state officials into action.
Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri ordered immediate inspections of all of Rhode Island's 1,712 "places of assembly," including clubs, restaurants, theaters and churches. Most lacked sprinkler systems, and many had the same type of wood-framed, potentially combustible construction as the nightclub.
Some buildings were shut down because of fire hazards. One, a fashionable Providence restaurant, was ordered to remove antique rugs hanging from the ceiling and tabletop oil lamps -- emitting just a "teeny-weeny flame," the owner moaned, according to media reports. Inspectors also found a tavern in East Providence where a purported fire exit led to a fenced-in lot.
Less than five months after the fire, state lawmakers passed sweeping safety rules for nearly every building in Rhode Island, exempting only homes for one to three families, which were required to have smoke alarms. All other buildings were covered by rules for everything from mandatory sprinklers to minimum clearances for exits and emergency lighting. A trained crowd-control manager was required at every gathering of at least 250 people.
The new laws also prohibited nightclub entertainers from using pyrotechnics, like the ones that ignited flammable foam on the Station's walls, a hazard that a local fire marshal had overlooked three months earlier. And the laws required owners of old buildings to meet the new safety standards, which have been updated every three years since then in accordance with prescriptions of the National Fire Protection Association.
As a result, "I think we have a far safer state," Burlingame, executive director of the Rhode Island Fire Safety Code Board, said Wednesday.
"I've been called overreaching, overbearing, draconian," said Burlingame, whose agency hears 200 to 250 appeals each year from property owners who have been cited by fire marshals. But "many of those people for years did nothing to comply," and now, "I think, for the most part, people are complying."
One sign of success, Burlingame said, is that a number of "wastebasket" fires that once might have spread to an entire building or more have been controlled quickly because of the universal presence of fire alarms, which have also helped occupants escape to safety.
One of the nightclub's owners, and the manager of the Great White band who ordered the fireworks display, were both sentenced to four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Lawsuits by survivors and the victims' relatives against the state, the town, the club owners and the band were settled for $176 million. The federal government fined the owners $85,000 and the band $7,000 for workplace-safety violations.
The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization whose model rules are widely used by cities and states, also toughened its standards after the Rhode Island fire. The new standards require sprinklers in new nightclubs with space for more than 100 customers, periodic inspections of building exits by their owners, and actual seats rather than floor seating for indoor gatherings of 250 or more unless the owner has a special safety permit, said Jim Pauley, the association's chief executive.
Survivors and relatives of the Rhode Island victims attended committee hearings where the rules were adopted, Pauley said. Rhode Island was the first state to enact those standards into law. Now most states have them, he said.
A postfire statewide inspection blitz isn't on the horizon in California, which has a population of 39 million compared with Rhode Island's 1.05 million. Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, said the state's Office of Emergency Services "has been on the ground from the beginning, assisting the city and county with their emergency response and disaster recovery" from the Oakland fire, but noted that enforcement of building codes is mostly a local responsibility.
Mayor Libby Schaaf's office did not respond to a query about whether Oakland has any plans for stepped-up fire safety inspections.
Unlike the Rhode Island nightclub, which was licensed for all of its operations, the Ghost Ship had a city permit only as a warehouse and not for the residents who lived on both its floors. The building is still subject to safety laws, but unsafe conditions are often found in unlicensed sites, Pauley said.
If building managers "aren't following any of the rules that are in place, the best standards in the world are not going to make a difference," he said.
He also advised patrons of such establishments to take a close look at the exits before they enter.
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