ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Ghost Ship fire in Oakland this month was the deadliest structural fire in the U.S. in more than a decade. Thirty-six people died, many of them young. The Ghost Ship was a crowded warehouse where many artists lived. The fire took place during a party on the second floor.
A team from The New York Times has been digging into whether the city fell short in its duty to inspect buildings for fire safety. Thomas Fuller is one of the reporters on that story and joins us now. Thanks for being with us.
THOMAS FULLER: Hi, Ari. You're welcome.
SHAPIRO: There's a fire station less than 200 yards from the Ghost Ship, and you write that the warehouse may just as well have been invisible to the Oakland Fire Department. In what way should it have been visible?
FULLER: Well, the Oakland Fire Department has a commercial inspection program, and there is confusion over exactly what should have been inspected or not because after the fire, the Oakland Fire Department changed the wording on its website.
SHAPIRO: This is a really striking thing that you revealed. What did you find had changed on this website?
FULLER: Well, I went to the website as part of our research into what the policy actually was, and the website said all commercial facilities must be inspected annually. And a week later, I was preparing an interview with the fire chief. And I went back to the website, and the language had changed.
The mandatory inspection requirement had been removed. And instead of annual inspections for those buildings that would be inspected, it said buildings would be inspected approximately every two years. So it was a - quite a distinct change.
SHAPIRO: That looks very problematic. How did the fire department explain making this change after this deadly fire?
FULLER: The fire chief told us that a change had been made to policy two years earlier, and they were just late in updating the website. Obviously since this update was made after the fire, it was a little more unusual. And she acknowledged that it looked unusual, but she said, no, this was just changing the wording on our website just to match what we were actually doing.
SHAPIRO: Except even under the more lenient terms, rather than mandatory annual inspections, having suggested biannual inspections or something like that every two years, the Ghost Ship had not been inspected in 30 years. It seems like it falls far, far short even under the new, more relaxed standard.
FULLER: Well, the Ghost Ship had never been inspected by the fire department according to their records. The Planning and Building Department hadn't visited in 30 years, as you referenced. And so I think one of the main things that investigators will be looking for, that the district attorney's office, which is investigating culpability in the fire - is how could this warehouse that was just a two-minute walk away from a fire station have gone unnoticed for such a long time when the firefighters of that firehouse are responsible for checking the commercial buildings in the neighborhood? That's part of the commercial inspection program - to go block by block.
SHAPIRO: The fire department told you that one challenge they face is that they are understaffed. And then the city came back and told you they had budgeted several positions that the fire department had not filled. So what do you think is going on here?
FULLER: Well, we hear from the firefighters union in Oakland that the department is very disorganized, that they were not hiring the number of people needed for the job. And what you referenced was a report from November that said that the fire department had 62 positions that were vacant, and they were funded. So in other words, the city government had already budgeted for these positions, but the fire department just hadn't gotten around to hiring.
SHAPIRO: Thomas Fuller is a San Francisco bureau chief for The New York Times. Thanks for joining us.
FULLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.