San Francisco

Fire Department Had Not Inspected Oakland Warehouse in Over a Decade: Records

There is no record over the last decade that shows that Oakland fire inspectors had even been inside the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse where 36 people perished during a fire on Friday.

Sources told NBC Bay Area that the building’s address was not even included in the Oakland Fire Department’s database of 12,000 commercial buildings earmarked for annual inspections. The department did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

But one union leader was quick to blame the department's leadership for long ignoring warnings about the flawed inspection effort.

“We do the inspections that the fire marshal gives us,’’ said Zac Unger, a leader of the Oakland firefighters' union and 18-year department veteran.

Unger says Oakland firefighters routinely inspect the city's light-use commercial buildings listed in the database.

Unger says it is the job of the Fire Prevention Bureau to take on the more complicated operations in the city.

Oakland’s fire inspection effort has long been criticized as inefficient and ineffective. A 2014 county grand jury report concluded that inspectors actually checked on only half of the 12,000 identified commercial properties. Some 2,000 owners refused inspections while another 4,000 properties were simply never inspected.

The grand jury cited “competing priorities” within the department for the shortfall. The city promised to do better in light of the findings.

NBC Bay Area asked for the fire inspection records for the 31st Avenue warehouse, only to be told by officials at the Fire Prevention Bureau that they did not have any. We were also told to file an official Public Records Request for the same data.

We later learned that this was because the building was not included in a 2006 database of 12,000 properties identified as qualifying for inspections.

One retired fire inspector said that it is clear from pre-fire photos of the conditions there that such an inspection would have led to citations at the Ghost Ship.

“The biggest thing that I saw in those photos that concerned me wasn’t so much what was inside [the warehouse] based on the photos – it was no fire separation between the units," said retired San Francisco fire inspector John Darmanin. "Fire rated construction is required.”

For whatever reason, there is no record of the structure or any inspection at the warehouse since the database was created in 2006.

“If we’re not sent to an address, we’re not inspecting it,” Unger acknowledged.

One reason the building may have been overlooked, Oakland firefighters say, is because they do not typically inspect buildings that appear vacant or abandoned.

Unger says that is just one gap in a system that firefighters have long warned about. As it stands, he says, the city only has six fire prevention inspectors, far fewer than comparable cities.

“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this,” Unger said. “The best way to save a life in a fire is to never have a fire in the first place. And the fire department needs to invest in prevention so we don’t have another incident like this.”

Late Wednesday, there was another admission from Oakland’s Interim City and Planning Director Darin Ranelletti. Records show no building inspectors — separate from fire inspectors — had stepped foot inside the warehouse for at least 30 years, he said.

Ranelletti said that the city's building inspectors can only go inside a property when following up on a permit request or complaint about the interior.

Records show that neighbors had complained about house construction in 2014, but Ranelletti said the complaints were for the address of a vacant lot adjacent to the warehouse —  and that inspectors did not see construction on the vacant lot and so dismissed the complaint.

"If we have an inspector that's looking at a particular property for which the complaint has been registered, he or she is not going to investigate adjacent properties on the street unless there's a physical obvious violation," Ranelletti said. "And at that time, that inspector did not see a physical, obvious violation at the warehouse."

Watch our investigative series on the Oakland warehouse fire:


Contact Us