A Fire Safety Guide for Industrial Environments

A fire broke out early this morning during a party at Ghost Ship, a live/workplace in Oakland, CA. Nine persons have died, and another 25 have gone missing as of this writing. According to the East Bay Times, this could be Oakland’s deadliest single-structure fire. The Ghost Ship in an old, run-down industrial building turned into a living area. It accommodated many individuals and hosted regular parties and events for the Bay Area’s underground artists community. There are dozens of such sites throughout the Bay Area.

Friends of mine live in warehouses, which are industrial structures in the Bay Area. Because old industrial spaces are affordable and adaptable, I have even more friends who have started enterprises, maker spaces, and other businesses in them. A considerable number of those friends work in industrial facilities that are potentially hazardous in some way, are not up to code, have not been inspected by a fire marshal, or are otherwise at risk of fire. I’m developing this basic, incomplete primer on infrastructural fire safety in industrial areas with those friends in mind. We will always have below-code industrial spaces as long as there are cities with absurdly high living costs, as long as creative individuals feel compelled to live communally in strange places, and as long as startups or enterprises need to bootstrap their way to success. This primer assists those who choose to live and work in specific settings to help them and work in safer environments.
(Here’s a quick run-down of my experience and why I’m qualified to write this: I founded the 40,000-square-foot Artisan’s Asylum maker space in Somerville, Massachusetts, and spent several years making sure it was up to code, legal, and safe. I’ve also lived in a warehouse for a short time and visited many more.)

Here are a few essential items to remember to make your industrial environment (whether it’s a warehouse, a startup company, or whatever) safer in the event of a fire.

  • Use suitable signs to identify your exits: Exit signs with inbuilt batteries that allow them to keep lit if power is lost are standard practice in industrial spaces. Here. More prominent locations may have emergency lights attached to these signs or connected to a conventional power circuit that turns on when the power goes off. Anyone in the space, at any time, must be able to see either an illuminated Exit sign or lit and designated way to the exit, according to fire regulations.
  • Keep your fire routes clear and marked: Yes, fire lanes are required. In industrial settings, it’s common to practice identifying a fire lane on the floor that’s the correct width for the sort of exit. In the United States, I believe the minimum lane widths (for infrequently used passages) are 36 inches wide. The most common width for main aisles is 42 inches. As the number of people using the lane grows, the width of the street grows as well. I strongly advise you to indicate routes on the ground with floor tape, paint, or whatever else you can think of. The second element of this notion, however, is that these lanes must be kept clear. People who leave objects in a fire lane should come at. Allowing them to be blocked for any reason is not a good idea.
  • Maintain a sufficient number of exits and keep them clear: In general, your space should have two clear doors available. If you have any meeting areas in your space, such rooms must have two available, clear exits. People may perish in your space due to a lack of doors more than any other factor. If a group of otherwise rational people stampedes in an emergency, single exits get clogged. If the individuals in your place can’t find the second exit, having multiple entries isn’t safe. If your area for Assembly (a building code phrase that refers to hosting groups of more than 49 people; I’m looking at you, warehouses), building code requires typically a minimum of two exits, each supplied by double doors with panic bars and 72″ fire lanes running to those double doors. For Assembly. Thus this necessity is a pain in the neck. If you’re planning to throw huge parties, at the very least, consider installing panic bars on the exit doors to your venues, and keep at least two exits entirely clear at all times. Consider restricting the number of individuals in your location at any given time if you don’t have two safe and clear entrances. Consider installing fire ladders if you have people living in your space, only have one exit, and are on the second floor or higher.
  • Ascertain that your exit infrastructure is fire-resistant: According to news sources, the Ghost Ship fire by improvised stairs made of pallets. For the record, pallets to build bonfires. They are not structurally sound, are not fire-resistant, and should not have been using as evacuation infrastructure between the first and second floors. In the locations I’ve seen, I’ve seen a lot of improvised infrastructure: second floors served by home-built wooden ladders, wooden lofts that function as mezzanines, catwalks made of old building materials, and so on. In a fire or other dangerous scenario, all of these examples can be exceedingly dangerous. They’re cool, edgy, and inventive, but they may also be extremely dangerous. Even if you have ornamental walkways and trails, make sure you have safe exit paths (that are signposted and made of fire-safe materials) to all of your places. Exits that include ladders, poles, ropes, and other features are not safe.
  • Maintain access to electrical panels and other building infrastructure: At all times, 3 feet of clearance in front of and to the sides of electrical panels. There will be no tables, bookcases, or other obstructions in front of them. In the event of an emergency, you must be able to reach them and cut off circuits. Water and natural gas valves, meters, and other vital building infrastructure must be accessible as well.
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