Published December 14th, 2016
During Fire, Officials Say Know Your Exit Strategy
By Nick Marnell
Often it takes an incident like the Oakland Ghost Ship fire to jolt people into action to prevent a similar tragedy. As such, officials of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District and the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District emphasized the importance of adhering to fire codes and heeding fire prevention advice in order to stay safe in an emergency situation.
"The fire prevention bureau is often overlooked as a valuable part of the fire district," said ConFire Chief Jeff Carman. Indeed, most revere the fire suppression teams and the firefighters as heroes who put themselves at risk to save lives and property, with the fire prevention division looked on as a nuisance and a symbol of government bureaucracy.
But fire inspectors and code enforcers indirectly save many lives, probably more lives than do the firefighters, Carman said. Fire prevention work is often contentious, dealing with developers, contractors and private parties in an attempt to apply the fire and building codes. Lives potentially saved include not only civilians but firefighters as well.
"The number one source of our code violations is exiting," said Robert Marshall, ConFire fire marshal. "Lights burnt out, the exit sign turned the wrong way, blocked exits." He stressed the need for education at home, especially for children: Teach the kids exit drills. Know two ways out of the house at all times. Before enjoying a feature at the Rheem Theatre, scope out the exits. Tell visitors staying at the Lafayette Park Hotel to be sure to locate the exit stairway. Stay alert at the Bruns Amphitheater.
"Focus on that exit sign. Walk toward it. It will lead you to the way out," Marshall said. "If you can't see a way out, your life is in danger." He noted that the 36 people killed in the Ghost Ship fire could not escape in under five minutes, yet at no time were they more than 50 feet from an exit.
As there are no crowded live-work warehouse-type structures in the district, MOFD fire marshal Kathy Leonard said that the larger concern in the Lamorinda area is a devastating wildfire, and that providing defensible space around your property is critical for your protection. "We do code inspections for a reason," she said. ConFire does about 12,000 code inspections per year, MOFD about 1,100.
"Had the fire code been adhered to it would not have resulted in the high number of fatalities we saw there," Carman said of the Ghost Ship tragedy. "Unfortunately, the Oakland fire is a stark reminder that the codes are there for a reason and if followed they will ultimately reduce the loss of life and property."
Fire officials recommend this action plan: If you intend to put on an event, call the district. The fire prevention bureau will inspect the venue and walk you through the necessary safety requirements.
Marshall sounded more hopeful than convinced that the public will heed the districts' exhortations. "We'd love to say that it's never going to happen here," he said.

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