One of the mantras I have always shared in my leadership training is “complacency in the fire ground can kill and complacency in the fire station can create big organizational problems.” The Oakland warehouse fire is a sad but perfect example. That fire is now the deadliest building fire in the United States in more than decade. The fire killed 36 people. According to the newspapers, the warehouse had been turned into artists’ studios and illegal living spaces. Up to 100 people were at the electric music party at the warehouse — known as the “Ghost Ship” — when the fire started on the first floor. It quickly raged, with smoke billowing into the second level and trapping victims whose only escape route was through the flames. The victims were overcome by smoke before they could get out of the building.
Former residents said the warehouse was a death trap with few exits, piles of driftwood and a labyrinth of electrical cords. Photos of the interior showed a hodgepodge Bohemian scenes of Tibetan prayer flags, Christmas lights and scores of wooden statues of Buddha, the virgin Mary Jesus Christ, elephants and dragons that sat atop the pianos and turn tables. The ground floor had RV’s and other nooks used as living spaces that were rented out to tenants, while the upstairs has space for concerts.
For years the city fielded complaints from citizens and even firefighters about dangerous conditions, drugs, neglected children, trash, thefts and squabbles at the illegally converted warehouse.
The Oakland Fire Department is required to conduct annual fire and life safety inspections of this type of building .Obviously the annual inspections did not happen. Chances are if the building had been inspected by a certified fire prevention inspector the building operation would have been shut down or brought up to code.
Webster’s dictionary defines complacency as : A feeling of self satisfaction when accompanied by an unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies; an instance of unawareness or uninformed self satisfaction. On of the concepts that we learn in the fire service is “situation awareness.” For example, situation awareness during a building fire is essential for life safety. Situation awareness requires the knowledge of where you are, what you are you trying to accomplish and, how to get out of the building in a hurry if needed. Complacency is the opposite of situation awareness. It appears that the fire department members responsible for the inspection process became complacent.