A Guide to Fire Safety in Industrial Spaces

The fire on the 1300 block of 31st Ave, Oakland CA

Early this morning, a fire broke out during a party in a live/work space called Ghost Ship in Oakland, CA. As of this writing, 9 people have died and another 25 are missing. The East Bay Times writes that it may be the deadliest single-structure fire in Oakland’s history. Ghost Ship was in an old, cheap industrial space that was converted into a living space. It housed a number of people and threw regular parties and events for the underground arts scene in the Bay Area. It is one of dozens (if not hundreds) of similar spaces in the Bay.

I have friends who live in converted industrial spaces, which are commonly called warehomes in the Bay. I have even more friends who have created startups, makerspaces, and other businesses in old industrial spaces because they’re cheap and flexible. A large portion of those friends are in industrial spaces that are dangerous or hazardous in some way, are not necessarily to-code, have not been inspected by a fire marshal, or are otherwise at risk of fire in some way. I am writing this basic, incomplete primer to infrastructural fire safety in industrial spaces with those friends in mind. So long as there are cities that have absurd costs of living, so long as creative people feel compelled to live communally in weird places, and so long as startups or businesses need to bootstrap their way along, we will always have below-code industrial spaces. I write this primer to help those who choose to live and work in those situations, in the hopes that it helps them live and work in safer spaces.

(A brief note on my background and why I’m in a position to write this: I founded the 40,000 square foot Artisan’s Asylum makerspace in Somerville, MA, and spent several years of my life making sure it was to-code, legal, and as safe as possible. I’ve also briefly lived in a warehome, and visited dozens more.)

Here are a few fundamental points to keep in mind to make your industrial space (whether it’s a warehome, startup business, or what have you) safer if a fire were to break out.

  • Mark your exits with appropriate signage. Standard practice for an industrial space is to have lit Exit signs with internal batteries that allow them to stay lit if power is lost. You can find such exit signs and safety lights here. Larger spaces have emergency lights tied to these signs, or just tied to a standard power circuit, that turn on if power is lost. Fire code requires that anyone in the space, at any location, can either see a lit Exit sign or can see a lit and indicated path to the exit.
  • Mark your fire lanes, and keep them clear. Yes, you need fire lanes. In industrial spaces it’s often recommended that you explicitly mark a fire lane on the floor that’s the proper width for the type of exit it is. I believe minimum lane widths (for passageways that are infrequently used) in the U.S. are 36" wide. More typical widths for main aisles are 42" wide. As lanes carry more foot traffic, widths increase from there. I strongly suggest you explicitly mark lanes with floor tape on the ground, paint, or whatever you can to make them explicit. The second part of this point, though, is that you have to keep these lanes clear. Yell at people who leave things in a fire lane. Don’t allow them to be blocked for any reason.
  • Have sufficient exits, and keep them clear. Generally speaking, you need two functional, clear exits to your space. If you have any rooms in your space that are used for gatherings, those rooms need two functional, clear exits. More than any other reason, a lack of exits is why people could die in your space in a fire. Single exits clog if a group of otherwise-rational people stampedes in an emergency. Multiple exits are not a guarantee of safety if the people in your space can’t find the second exit, or if the second exit is blocked. If your space is used for Assembly (a building code term which means hosting groups of more than 49 people; warehomes that host large parties, I’m looking at you), building code typically calls for a minimum of two exits to that space, each served by double doors with installed panic bars, and 72" fire lanes leading to those double doors. This requirement is a pain in the ass for most industrial spaces, because they were never designed for Assembly use. At a minimum, consider installing panic bars on the exit doors to your spaces if you’re going to host large parties, and keep a minimum of two exits completely clear at all times. If you don’t have two safe and clear exits to your space, consider limiting the number of people in your space at any one time. If people are living in your space, you only have one exit, and you’re on the second floor or higher, consider equipping your space with fire ladders.
  • Make sure your exit infrastructure is fire-safe. News reports indicate that the Ghost Ship fire was exacerbated by the fact that an improvised stairwell was made of pallets. For the record, people often construct bonfires out of pallets. They are not sound building material, they are not fire-resistant in any way, and they should not have been serving as exit infrastructure between the first and second floor. I’ve seen many pieces of improvised infrastructure in the spaces I’ve visited; second floors that are served by home-built wooden ladders, wooden lofts that serve as mezzanines, catwalks made of old building materials, you name it. All of these examples can be extremely hazardous in a fire or other hazardous situation. They’re cool, they’re edgy, they’re creative, but they can also be fundamentally unsafe. Make sure you have safe exit paths (that are marked and made of fire-safe materials) to all of your spaces, even if you also have decorative walkways and paths. Ladders, poles, ropes and other features are not safe exits.
  • Keep electrical panels and other building infrastructure clear and accessible. Electrical panels need 3 feet of clearance in front of them and to the sides of them at all times. This means no tables, bookshelves, or the like in front of them. You need to be able to get to them and turn circuits off in the case of an emergency. Other critical building infrastructure that needs to be accessible includes water and natural gas valves, meters, and so on.
  • Keep non-expired fire extinguishers around in sufficient numbers, and mark their locations. Small fires can turn into big fires, quickly. Keep updated fire extinguishers around and mark their locations so that someone can look around any room and find at least one in an emergency - ESPECIALLY if your space doesn’t have built-in fire suppression. A well marked, well-placed fire extinguisher looks like this. Fire extinguishers expire within a few years, so make sure yours have been recently purchased or inspected if you already have them. Several services are available to inspect and replenish old fire extinguishers if you have them.
  • Make sure you have smoke detectors, and make sure they’re functional. This almost goes without saying, but make sure your space has smoke detectors, make sure they have batteries, and make sure you test them on a regular basis. A reasonable schedule is one test every 6 months.
  • Keep flammable chemicals in appropriate storage containers. Industrial solvents, gasoline, kerosene, spray paint/aerosols, and any other flammable chemicals need to be stored in fire-safe containers. These are typically flammables cabinets that are made out of metal, have automatically closing and latching doors, and are designed to keep their internals cool in the event of a fire. If you can’t afford a flammables cabinet, consider at least storing flammable chemicals in a metal cabinet with latching doors.

Please consider this an incomplete list. If anyone has suggestions for significant updates or corrections, I would love to hear them. Building and fire code vary from municipality to municipality, and the exact figures I quote may very well be wrong for your area. Again, I’m writing this in an attempt to reach those who may be living or working in unsafe conditions for whatever reason, and I ask that they consider these points seriously in the wake of today’s awful news. Please do whatever you can to keep you and yours as safe as possible, wherever you choose to live and work.

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