Berkeley Fire Department behind on inspections, audit report reveals

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The Oakland “Ghost Ship” fire, which killed 36 people in December 2016, was one of a few recent incidents that prompted the Berkeley Fire Department, or BFD, to ask the city to conduct an audit that would analyze current inspection procedures in order to find solutions that will allow the city to efficiently complete city-mandated fire inspections that determine high-risk properties.

The city audit report found that BFD is understaffed and was using “unreliable” data to track property inspections, putting the city at risk for fire incidents and potentially impeding evacuation and rescue efforts.

City Auditor Jenny Wong said population growth, increased development and a city code that exceeds state standards — in addition to insufficient staffing — has resulted in the fire department’s inability to inspect all required buildings, provide educational resources to home and property owners and enforce procedures to resolve code violations.

BFD Chief David Brannigan said most of the recent property fires in Berkeley were not related to the department’s inability to meet city inspection codes. He added that the fires were not in structures subject to inspections.

According to the audit report, the Berkeley Municipal Code differs from state code not only in that it requires the city to conduct additional types of annual inspections, including inspections of commercial buildings and vacant lots, but also in that it requires that all mandated properties be inspected every year.

“The City has a choice — it can either revise the regulations to make sure high risk buildings are prioritized for inspections and resolve violations, even if it means not all buildings are inspected as frequently, or the City can allocate sufficient staffing so the Department can meet the code requirements,” Wong said in an email.

The audit report also recommends that the fire department support the inspection program by using risk-assessment tools to identify high-risk properties, developing a communication plan, creating a public education program and implementing a process to manage violations.

According to the audit report, the Fire Prevention Division, which is responsible for annual inspections mandated by the State Fire Marshal, the California Health and Safety Code and the Berkeley Municipal Code, has a limited staff. Wong said the department has had to rely on firefighters to conduct most inspections because of understaffing. According to the report, suppression staffing has not increased since 2013, despite an increase in emergency calls.

According to the report, all fire captains complete a 40-hour inspections and investigations course, which includes 29.5 hours of lecture and 3.5 hours of testing. However, according to the audit survey, only 40 percent of captains believed that they received adequate training to properly perform inspections.

Brannigan said inspectors check a structure for fire code violations, which include expired fire extinguishers, blocked exits, improper use of electrical equipment and defective alarm systems.

According to the city audit report, of the nearly 4,000 violations issued in 2018, about 2,500, or 64 percent, were unresolved by property owners. Additionally, 6.5 percent of properties requiring inspections were not inspected.

Lack of sufficient operational support also interferes with the fire department’s ability to educate property owners about the importance of inspections, resulting in longer inspections and more code violations, Wong said. Property owners may be uninformed about the consequences of not complying with codes, which may include fines of up to $500 per violation per day.

“We are exploring ways to educate property owners about the process. There is information on our website,” Brannigan said. “Other options include providing guidelines when business licenses are renewed, sending mailers prior to the inspection season or creating a tool for property owners to do a self-inspection before we come out.”

To track inspections and record violations, BFD uses a database system called Red Alert. According to Wong, data in the system is incomplete and unreliable. Because the information is manually entered by staff and does not automatically link with other city databases, new properties and property changes are not quickly updated in the system.

During the audit, staff performed a manual reconciliation between Red Alert and the hard-copy memos sent out by the planning department. BFD identified an additional 21 properties that required inspection.

Wong said the fire department can improve its data collection by ensuring it has a complete inventory of buildings to inspect and information on the types of properties that are inspected as well as on which properties have violations. She said that without this information, the fire department cannot determine high-risk properties, and it cannot address the most severe violations.

“Fire prevention did not have staff to reconcile database differences and errors until a few months ago when we created a position to do just that,” Brannigan said in an email. “The cleanup has begun and we’re already seeing improved record keeping and billing.”

Brannigan said BFD is developing criteria to evaluate and prioritize high-risk properties. However, these processes may require resources the city does not have. Brannigan referred to a system headed by a Harvard University postdoctoral researcher in Portland. Brannigan expressed interest in working with UC Berkeley on a similar analysis to meet BFD needs.

Wong said the fire department will report back to the city in six months to evaluate the steps taken to address the issues.

Contact Vanessa Arredondo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @V_anana.