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You may have seen the headlines about the recent fire at a warehouse in Oakland, California. While designed and built for use as a warehouse, the tenant renting the building had reportedly converted it to use as an artist’s collective and dwelling units. A second floor space, accessed by only two stairways (one of which was reportedly a makeshift affair constructed out of wooden pallets), was also used for musical and other performances, one of which was underway when the fire broke out. The interior space was reportedly cluttered with makeshift dwelling units and artist work spaces, and packed with combustible furniture, art, and supplies. There were only two exits from the building, both far from the stairways to the second level and with no clear path to them. The building was reportedly not sprinklered, and no smoke alarms were found.
Thirty-six people died in the fire, making it the largest such mass fire casualty event since 2003. Tragic as that is, that’s not the real news. What is notable is how infrequent and unusual events like these have become over the past century, due primarily to the development and enforcement of modern fire codes.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire on March 25, 1911 in New York City was probably the most infamous such event, killing 146 young garment workers working on the upper floors of the building. Occurring over a century ago, it had much in common with the recent Oakland fire: overcrowding, inadequate exits, highly combustible occupancy, no fire protection, etc. While not the largest such mass fire event of that era the Triangle fire captured the imagination of the public due to the youth of most victims, and the fact that they were mostly young women at work in a space where they should have been safe. It gave an impetus to the development of modern fire codes and fire safety standards.
We take these for granted these days. If you are at your desk as you read this take a look around you. You are likely in an office building constructed to modern fire safety standards and codes, out of noncombustible or fire retardant materials, and equipped with sprinklers and smoke or fire alarms. Look around and you’ll see several clearly marked fire exits with paths to them clear and unobstructed. These, and other standards less visible (electrical codes, occupancy limits, etc.) minimize the likelihood of an event like Triangle, or Oakland.
It’s human nature to not think too much about things like fire risk, and it’s clear the operator of the Oakland warehouse gave fire safety little thought. It has also been reported that municipal authorities responsible for enforcing local codes may have failed in their jobs as well, with no records of recent inspections of the building despite complaints by neighbors. Had the building been inspected and codes enforced the outcome of this fire might arguably have been much different.
Code enforcement can certainly be an irritation and a headache, and if you have ever dealt with a building inspector focused on nit-picking details it might be easy to lose sight of the overall goals of the codes he’s enforcing. The Oakland fire is a good reminder of the reasons for such rules, what results can be expected by failure to follow them, and the benefit we derive, individually and as a society, from them.