Streamlining Fire Departments: More than efficiency, it can save lives
We talk a lot about streamlining and how it makes sense: It saves agencies money. It makes citizens happier. It encourages business growth and it makes it easier to build housing. All of those issues are important – making government efficient and removing barriers to development are reason enough to streamline. But streamlining government work can save lives, too. Inspection management software is more than an efficiency: It’s an essential tool for fire departments.
Oakland, CA, is living through an example of how inefficiency can cause tangible disasters. In December 2016, a fire tore through the Ghost Ship warehouse, killing 36 people. The tragedy became a clear illustration of how Oakland’s city staff did not have the correct tools in place to manage safety inspections. The Ghost Ship was only a block from a fire house, yet it was not in the fire department’s database and had never been inspected. So the building’s unsafe wiring, unstable stairs, blocked exits and lack of smoke detectors were never flagged – until it was too late.
Oakland had started streamlining city services: Their building department moved to streamlined planning software after a grand jury criticized their paper-based system that was letting plans and permits fall through the cracks. While they were able to fund an upgraded system for the planning division, the fire department was left with an old system – even though the fire department is responsible for inspections.
The fire department’s database was “cumbersome from the get-go,” said acting Fire Chief Mark Hoffmann, adding that the city has not funded system upgrades over the years. “It’s not particularly user-friendly for people who enter data. You can’t seamlessly go window to window.”
Training hurdles may also have contributed to the inspections problem. OneStep, the software company that provides Oakland’s inspection system, said that the department was entering and managing data incorrectly.
The usability was a problem, but the bigger issue was incomplete data: The Ghost Ship example was not even in the fire department database.
Efficiency has suffered as well: in 2014, a grand jury investigation reported that less than a third of required inspections were being completed.
Regardless of the cause, it’s clear that Oakland needs to support the fire department’s responsibilities with better inspection management software, better training processes, and better communication between departments: “Ideally you’d have a big map and all the databases talking to each other,” said Claudia Cappio, an assistant city administrator. Systems are already in place in the Planning Department. The Public Works department uses an app so residents can report hazards. The 911 service uses another database. The city’s treasury uses yet another system. An integrated city platform would include inspection management software that could share data between all of those departments.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf wants to combine various city systems into a smarter solution that could predict which buildings may be at risk for fire hazards, a plan announced after the Ghost Ship disaster. But while the city researches solutions, another catastrophe struck: just two weeks ago, a West Oakland halfway house burnt to the ground, killing four people and displacing more than 80. The building had just been inspected and flagged for safety violations, but actions against the landlord were still pending.
West Oakland Building That Burned Monday Was A Halfway House With A Troubled History