Task force acts in wake of deadly Ghost Ship fire

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Five days after 36 people died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced she's creating a task force.

 "My immediate priorities for this task force are enhanced building safety, event safety, and complaint procedures," Schaaf said at the time.

Now, five months after the devastating blaze, KTVU caught up with the mayor and asked her, who's on the task force and what's been done.

"It's a very interdepartmental team with people from throughout the city organization, from my office and the city administrator's office to the building department, the fire department, the city attorney's office, finance, revenue, - we really needed everybody at the table," Schaaf said.

She says the task force has already taken steps in hopes of preventing another tragedy.

"We have already initiated the hiring processes that will double the number of fire inspectors in Oakland," the mayor said. "And then, even a year from now it will eventually triple the number."

To boost staffing, though, the city will charge property owners more than $330 an hour - more than double the current fee -- for fire inspections of commercial buildings.

"But that is a small price to pay for safety," the mayor said.

By the end of May, the city hopes to approve funding to expand a database system that will allow different city agencies to communicate with each other about problem properties. That didn't happen with the Ghost Ship.

 More staff will also be given mobile devices for real-time updates, she said. The city is designing an app that connects to the county assessor's office, business tax licenses and calls for service.

"To share information about a single property, that is critical," the mayor said. "And we now have technology that allows us to do this."

But all this will still take some time.

"All this could have been done before this fire," said San Francisco attorney Mary Alexander, who represents families of some Ghost Ship victims.

Alexander says the task force is a step in the right direction - but that it's too late for her clients.

"They were going to - and were supposed to do -- inspections once a year on buildings, and it wasn't done," Alexander said.

Thomas Dolan, an Oakland architect, conducts so-called "no-tell" inspections. He wrote the city's live-work building code more than 20 years ago and is also on the mayor's task force. 

"We've been advising tenants mostly on taking care of what we call low hanging fruit,which is exit signs, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers," Dolan said.

 "We're looking at some pretty sweeping changes to the live/work building code for a certain kind of live/work that we've seen," he said.

Those changes, he says, could involve requiring sprinklers, seismic retrofits and "emergency escape and rescue openings" at communal spaces like the Ghost Ship.

"But the wheels of government turn fairly slowly," he said.

 Oakland police have already taken action. Officers now must report illegal parties or cabarets to their supervisor.

"The supervisor then takes that to their next-level supervisor, going and moving it forward to our chain of command, and to the proper city service," said Officer Johnna Watson, Oakland police spokeswoman.

The mayor says the task force's work isn't done.

"We're looking at for example giving our inspectors the ability to write tickets - on the spot - instead of going through the more lengthy property lien process," Schaaf said.

The city also wants to reach out to tenants, not just property owners, as part of the inspection process.

"It is very frustrating for the people most affected by the city's inspections to not know what the status is when legally, we have only been required to communicate with property owners," Schaaf said.

The task force is also looking at ways to getting inspectors access to buildings, when no one will open the door.

Alexander said, "I think the task force is a good way to move in that direction, and of course there has to be follow-through to make sure that it does happen." 

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