Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

"Strange": internal investigation of inadequate response to fire will result in changes, disciplinary actions in Orange County, California

Because it is so rare that there are consequences meted out for failure to act wrt avoidable failures, I was surprised to see this article in the Orange County Register ("Orange County probe finds Canyon 2 Fire response rife with human error and complacency, calls for disciplinary action"). From the article:
Concluding that the fire agency’s response during the early minutes of the Canyon 2 Fire was rife with “human error and potential complacency,” an 80-page report from the county obtained by the Register — slated to be presented publicly later this month — says the findings present “an important case study in how miscalculations and missteps in small but critical areas can result in significant damages… to a community.”

The investigations by the county and the OCFA both say fire personnel essentially ignored early reports of flames on Oct. 9, 2017, the day the fire started. Both also say fire officials were too slow to send equipment and personnel to contain a blaze that burned for eight days, charred 9,200 acres, destroyed 15 houses and 10 other structures, and displaced thousands of residents of Anaheim Hills and North Tustin.

Specifically, the two reports say OCFA officials downplayed a 911 caller’s reports of flames in a canyon at 8:32 a.m. Instead of following protocol, which would require sending personnel and equipment to the scene, they directed firefighters at a station more than a mile away to look outside and report on what they saw.

Those firefighters dismissed the reported flames as wind-blown ashes, an error that prompted an OCFA dispatcher to tell CHP officials that fire reports were “unfounded.” Firefighting equipment wasn’t deployed for another 71 minutes.

Separately, in going through mounds of old stuff I haven't read, I came across this article, "Pittsburgh Uses Data to Predict Fire Risk," in Government Technology Magazine, discussing the use of data analysis in fire agency organizations, better matching resources and fire inspection processes to ward off the potential of problems like the Ghost Ship building fire in Oakland, California or the disaster of Grenfell Tower in London.

Among other cities, fire departments in New York City ("New York City Fights Fire with Data," GT) and Austin ("Austin Fire Department Extracts Value From Data," GT) aim to use data analytics and programs to improve performance.

Some time ago, Philadelphia created a "Fire Vulnerability Index" for buildings, to be able to be proactive in reducing risks and the likelihood of fire by "scor[ing] every household in Philadelphia on its propensity for a fire" ("Philadelphia Fire Department uses data to stop fires before they start," Urgent Communications). From the article:
From this index, the PFD now knows which households to focus fire-prevention efforts on and can pinpoint fire vulnerability households in the city that are more likely to have a future fire event. Fackel said it also can use the data for several efforts, such as to provide those households with fire alarms or to send them direct-mail flyers about fire safety.

Labels: , , , ,


At 6:52 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

funny, I was just reading on the response to the 1991 oakland fires.

And my point is local government is usually very bad at these things and it is impressive when they get it right.

At 7:51 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I am going to speak at a class next week at UDC CC on broken windows etc. The class is on GIS and data analysis of crime.

So I am thinking about this stuff more, in preparation for the talk.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

got it from the wiki.

I see two issues:

1. With local governments -- the problem is focus --everything is very short term, very budget constrained, and turnover very high. So hard to sustain efforts.

2. On the US federal side, once it gets going (and it takes forever) it is good job, but then impossible to re target priorities.

On another love, Elon levy has a good piece on transit costs -- and makes the point that austerity means democratic oversight -- when you don't have government oversight you have blown up budgets.

(hence my criticism of zimmerman as WMATA chair -- his job was cheerleading, it was watching over those budgets).

In this sense Mendleson is the perfect Council chair.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt 1. definitely. Was e-talking with a colleague who is interviewing A. Williams at a conf. next week, and I mentioned the problem of maintenance of improvement as successor administrations drop previous initiatives in favor of their own.

wrt 2. yep, impossible to retarget priorities, but also at the same time, they've become exactly the same as the local govts. in terms of short term focus.

Not having a capital budget process makes things worse.

But then the two very different philosophies of govt., but joined sort of with neoliberalism, creates a different kind of impasse.

I was cleaning the basement last week, and have some old Congressional Record prints dating to the 1960s and 1970s, back when Congressional Committees did important hearings on important topics (the one I came across was on property taxes and how cities rely on them for funding).

Congress is nothing like that now, and we're poorer for it.

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

In a rare instance, I'm going to disagree with you, some, about your point about Elon Musk (and I've been meaning to ask what you think about him in terms of Elizabeth Holmes, what really is the difference between him and her when it comes down to making misleading claims, albeit he is producing some cars).

It's not that austerity means renewed democratic oversight, you had oversight all along. It's just that you had a particular system and process for doing the work, dealing with unions, etc. There was a consensus or equilibrium position about it.

There wasn't a recognition that this system developed out of a particular set of conditions and it wouldn't be sustainable outside of that set of conditions. In this case, it was the postwar period of growth that allowed and fostered that set of conditions.

Austerity/reduced growth/recessions/GFC means at some point, finally, the "doing away of obsolete practices or businesses or technologies" because financially, you can't keep doing things the old ways because they are no longer sustainable economically.

E.g. with the auto industry, they need national health and national pension, because doing it "in-house" isn't sustainable, and that's not how their competitors are doing it, which puts them at a disadvantage.

With NYC and subway construction, it means that it's no longer affordable to have 2x to 4x the number of workers on a project compared to other cities. It's no longer affordable.

Another element is the cost in time and money of all the environmental reviews. There needs to be a happy medium where some of it is satisficed.


I've been meaning to write about it for awhile. The NYT Magazine story ran in January, and I am sure that you read it:

we see a bit of it with city bankruptcies, the problems in Illinois, the problems in PR.

The thing is that at least with IL and PR, the various parties aren't being honest and forthright, and in the case of PR, hedge fund ownership of bonds bollixs up the works in a whole different way.

In IL, neither Rauner nor Madigan are doing the right thing, pursuing all the "right" options and policies, etc.

With cities, you probably remember the Youngstown 2010 initiative. It's rare for communities to accept shrinkage.

But in any case, as I argued a couple years ago, the funding mechanisms for local government need to change in recognition of a low growth scenario. That's in addition to/regardless of the problem of pension overhang.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

S***. WMATA. I am the first to concede I am not big "budget" detail person, I am more of a forest person, not a tree person.

But yes, the problems of WMATA had been multiple, in addition to the failure of the jurisdictions to focus on and fund maintenance once the system began to age.

Remember the Washington Times series?

Not unlike the argument about NYC subway construction or the auto industry c. 2008, the same thing is the case with WMATA.

It got away with stuff for a long time because the system was at equilibrium operationally -- the Silver Line addition threw it out of kilter -- and financially, because of the distance based fare system, charging fares by mode, and the federal transit benefit.

All that made for a farebox recovery rate highest in the US (only exceeded by TTC.)

But now fares have hit a rough ceiling combined with service failures shifting people to other modes (e.g., it's as cheap for two to use Car2Go as to take transit), and pension costs, and the escalating cost-need for substantive maintenance, etc., wrecked the previously extant financial equilibrium.

Before, speaking of oversight, the jurisdictions were ok with the way things were funded, through fares in large part, because it meant that they didn't have to provide as much in the way of baseline appropriations compared to peer systems.

Zimmerman could be a cheerleader, and the board could hire Catoe because "rail is fine, we need to improve bus, and Catoe is a bus expert."

But the system was beginning to hit its point of overreach/shark jumping, etc. Catoe wasn't prepared when the rail system declined.

And it's not customary to do "scenario planning" for real worst case situations, at least I don't think so. The elected officials/MPO weren't prepared.

Yes, there should have been better oversight.

But a lot of that goes back to the beginning.

THERE WAS NO REASON WHY AT THE CREATION OF WMATA, the three jurisdictions could have created an oversight system comparable to the rail division of California PUC, with oversight over WMATA and other rail operations in the three jurisdictions. But they didn't do it.

Because of the sloshing of money through the three things mentioned above, they didn't create, when the system was successful, a more sustainable and regularized (and monetizable) stream of tax revenues (property, sales, payroll, etc.) to support the system.

My point is that it's best to do that kind of stuff when you are successful, not when you are failing and desperate. (That goes for the sales of branded stuff too, which I aim to write about).

And this kind of stuff too:

(cf. WMATA trying to do college student pass stuff now. They should have been working on that decades ago.

... even so, in recessions, those tax streams get crushed, as most transit systems across the country experienced as a result of the GFC/recession.


At 10:59 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

another example of a different set of "endogenous" conditions is Toronto vis a vis the US in the Amazon HQ2 race.

Toronto said we don't need to offer concessions, because of the savings compared to the US of your firm not having to pay the health insurance costs of your workers because they would participate in the national health insurance system.

At 12:56 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: Musk/Levy; just to make sure we are on same page, I meant Alon levy (autocorrect error) from this:

On the other musk/theranos -- well selling the future is fun! I can't blame them. Theranos was 95% vaporware; the problem with Musk is that his stuff doesn't scale and he pretends it does scale up.

But your main point: " It's just that you had a particular system and process for doing the work, dealing with unions, etc. There was a consensus or equilibrium position about it."

1. Yes reliance on property tax means local government is very dependent on one rev. stream and austerity is real for them;

2. on WMATA, not arguing your point about "service levels" being set and WMATA fulfilling them.

3. on oversight, Levy's point is that the government oversights lapses mean more money and I'll stand by that. Contactors are in control of the process unless a democratic body pushes back and acts in an innovative fashion.

4. Maybe a weak version of your theory -- that we've been so disrupted by GFC that we have't had time to respond and develop new systems -- is truer. Again if we apply it to DC I disagree -- Ellington school construction costs are not a new model. Building a new aircraft carrier not a new model.

5. Your theory does seem to fit Silver Line/WMATA better.

6. My point on the austerity debate is that it a perennial debate and don't be bounded by a current D vs R perspective. I find who wins (and loses) in austerity more interesting. Cross of gold and all that.

7. Again -- granular DC -- winner in an anti-austerity climate (loose money) young people with dual incomes. Losers -- people who can't get mortgages.

8. Winner -- Elon Musk.

9. Bigger point -- we make this a moralistic debate because we attach value to money. I'm not sure than since 1973 money=value. Sometimes it does.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

your point 4, we agree. I didn't see the original piece. Yes, lapses in oversight, doing deals with the underqualified (e.g., Foulger Pratt constructing the SS Transit Center), etc. ain't good, won't keep costs down.

Somewhere I remember one of the problems is that the political cycle/news cycle "demands" announcements, and people make announcements not knowing the full costs of a project, and then the costs rise, creating "a problem."

That's a different issue though.

A comment in the thread on the PO piece makes the point that people running transit should be trained in both engineering and management.

... it doesn't seem as if graduating in public policy or public administration is necessarily a great base for doing the right thing when it comes to governance.

I don't always agree with Mendelson, e.g., it was ok for DC to pay a bit more towards WMATA, but I do see your point.

That being said, he isn't advocating for a formal capital budgeting process comparable to other cities, counties, and states.

And that would go a long way, theoretically, towards reducing waste in construction here.

It actually wouldn't, because people would make normative and fairness arguments about why you should spend what $175MM on a redo of Ellington, and the politicians would cave.

UNLESS, you put scoring requirements into the law, to give them some cover.

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Yes. That is the weakness with Mendo. He isn't willing to push for transformational change.

And he knows this very well on the capital budgeting issue.

Of course he also may know he won't carry the council on it.


Post a Comment

<< Home