OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) - Oakland city leaders have acknowledged their building inspection process is in dire need of an overhaul ever since they were slammed for not properly inspecting buildings in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire.
In fact, the city produced a progress report in eight months ago, reporting its inspectors had not yet been able to properly inspect 1,000 buildings, which included warehouses, schools and hospitals.
Yet, in an interview with 2 Investigates this month, newly sworn-in Fire Marshal William Weisgerber candidly admitted that number does not represent the reality.
“I’m not sure about that 1,000,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know where that came from. I’m not sure anyone could have come up with that number.”
What that means is that Oakland’s inspection records does not represent what official city documents claimed and city officials realized.
For family members impacted by the Ghost Ship, like Colleen Dolan of San Rafael, this new information is infuriating.
“It’s like they’ve been feeding us a line of bull all along. That they’re covering up for their own incompetence and apathy,” said Dolan.
Dolan lost her daughter, 33-year-old Chelsea Dolan, the night of the fire. When asked if she believes another Ghost Ship could happen, she said absolutely.
“It could happen today and that terrifies me,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through. [Ghost Ship] was a hell hole. It was a fire trap...I want to know why [Oakland fire officials], in their official capacity, they were willing to allow and continue to allow buildings that are unsafe for habitation to be turned into apartment buildings.”
Oakland inspection records outdated and unreliable
2 Investigates recently learned the problem of outdated and unreliable records for the city’s commercial and residential inspections still looms. As a result, officials are not able to say when they will have an accurate picture of the city’s inspection backlog, let alone when inspectors will have a handle on them.
“We are migrating from one database to another. You can’t put bad data into the current database. You’re not solving the problem,” Weisgerber said.
Fire Chief Darin White said Oakland’s dynamic population and a chronic staffing contributed to the current dilemma. He said it’s been about a decade since the information was properly reviewed.
“If we focus on the change through our processes just with the understanding of what’s happening and why, I’d argue we are doing far more. We may not be able to meet everyone’s expectations right away, but it’s our goal to be as successful as we can,” he said.
How Oakland is improving
Increasing staffing levels and implementing new technology to streamline inspections are among the city’s accomplishments these last 18 months, according to White.
Since the Ghost Ship, the Oakland Fire Department has acquired new leadership. Former Chief Teresa Reed, who was largely criticized for her silence during the tragedy, retired and was replaced by Fire Chief Darin. Weisgerber replaced former Fire Marshal Miguel Trujillo after his resignation in March. Trujillo is now the fire marshal of the City of Gilroy.
At the time of Ghost Ship, Oakland had six code inspectors. To date, the city has 14 fire code inspectors on staff while it actively recruits to hire an additional six fire code inspectors, plus backfilling a position, which will bring the total to 21 inspectors by the end of the year.
Oakland is also talking with a consultant to provide additional support to complete the mandated inspections.
Since the tragedy, Oakland has also provided firefighters and code inspectors with tablets to expedite inspections. It’s decreased inspection times significantly, according to Fire Captain Dino Torres.
“I can get through this inspection in five minutes,” Torres told 2 Investigates during an inspection ride-along.
The technology is replacing pen and paper, which is what firefighters and inspectors used before. Crews would have to handwrite inspection findings then return to the fire station to enter the data digitally.
This new technology is helping with efficiency and accuracy, said White.
“You can’t circumvent the device in anyway. You have to go through a certain sequence to complete the inspection,” he said.
The technology is not yet being used for commercial or residential inspections, only for vegetation inspections where the data is more reliable. It’s unclear when the technology will be used to inspect warehouses and apartments, buildings possibly like the Ghost Ship.
“Unfortunately, it can’t be the hare. It has to be the tortoise in some degree, but we’re moving as fast as we can. The real sustainable change comes from making sure things are done right from the onset, and if we jump the gun we’ll have to double back, and that’s even more complicated,” said White.
Dolan said she hasn't been personally made of aware of these changes.
"If something has been done, they should let the families know," she said.
"It's important for them to know we care first of all," said White. "This is our mission. We're here for public safety, to prevent and respond. We are proud professionals of this department."
Candice Nguyen is an investigative reporter with KTVU. Send story/investigation tips to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.