The 1991 Oakland hills wildfire claimed 25 lives and incinerated more than 3,000 homes and structures. To prevent a recurrence of such an inferno, a Wildfire Prevention Assessment District was created.
Homeowners in the district pay special taxes to fund city fire-prevention programs, and the Oakland Fire Department is responsible for inspecting all properties within the district for compliance with the Oakland Fire Code's Vegetation Management requirements.
On Nov. 19, 2013, the city auditor released a performance audit of Oakland Fire's private property vegetation inspections in the Oakland hills. It stated that random interviews with Fire Department staff indicated "a lackluster culture surrounding the performance of the fire inspections, including that inspections are not taken seriously and may not always be performed correctly." Further, the number of budgeted inspectors in the Vegetation Management Inspection Services unit had been reduced from six full-time positions to six half-time positions. Trained inspectors were not working during the key months of the fire season.
Additionally, the department never implemented policies and procedures to guide the inspection process. This means that it has no process to ensure that inspections are adequately performed and correctly documented. Last year, 35 percent of Fire Department staff who performed inspections failed to attend training sessions.
In 2011, 529 residential properties failed Oakland Fire Code inspections, but the department brought only 7.4 percent into compliance. In 2012, only 18 percent of such properties were brought into compliance.
The audit found that some of these deficiencies may have been due to lack of funding. But there is no indication that the department ever sought supplemental or emergency funding.
On the same date the audit was released, the department responded that the audit only "validated" issues that the city administration has been working to address. It further stated that there have been many changes within the Vegetation Management unit.
The auditor found a lax departmental culture in the performance of the fire inspections. Inspections are not taken seriously and may not always be performed correctly. Thousands of Oakland residents have been put at risk.
The weak-kneed acknowledgment of responsibility is not enough. A culture of deficient organizational management and employee accountability takes years to development. Change that is difficult must be forced.
City officials must take swift and vigorous action to investigate and correct this situation and to restore public trust. The City Council must take charge and set an oversight hearing. Fire Department officials must be questioned about egregiously negligent management. The council must pinpoint exactly who is responsible and suggest specific remedies.
I urge readers to contact their council members and demand that the council hold a public hearing. Only then will the message get through that this kind of mismanagement and neglect will not be tolerated.
Gretchen White is the president of the Metropolitan-Greater Oakland Democratic Club. The club has been involved in Oakland government accountability issues for more than 50 years.