How Seattle DIY Event Organizers Can Avoid a Tragedy Like Oakland's Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire –

December 6, 2016 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ DIY Project


On December 2, a devastating fire broke out at the Ghost Ship live-work artists warehouse space in Oakland, California, during an underground electronic-music party. So far, 36 people have been confirmed dead in what is considered the most deadly such incident in that city’s history. In light of such a tragedy, which could’ve happened on any given night in the Seattle area’s thriving underground cultural scene, we asked S. Surface, architectural designer and program director for Design in Public, for tips on how people organizing events in DIY spaces can ensure their patrons’ safety.

Surface recognizes the power of spaces that “transcend the everyday world” but stresses that organizers should insist on safety measures like open pathways, sturdy walls and floors, and proper ventilation. “Idiosyncratic, labyrinthine chaos and clutter is often intended as opulence and beauty, or even acts of resistance to the mundane, functional, orderly, and institutionally tidy spaces we encounter elsewhere,” they said in an email interview. “But it is absolutely necessary to maintain some clarity, legible wayfinding, and basic safety protocol.”

“I’ve walked through dense paper art installations that basically consigned attendees to being in a tinder box as long as we were there,” Surface wrote. “Your personal creative vision does not supersede the life safety of the people who are there to experience it. “

Here are some steps Surface suggests for venues, promoters and the public to take to ensure our DIY spaces are safe and, as described in a heartfelt Facebook note by Seattle musician Kimya Dawson, continue to save lives through music and community.

• De-clutter your space and surrounding areas. Piles = fires and obstruction.
• Clear paths to exits. Mark and label building circulation with reflective tape or paint on the floor. Typically, these paths should be at least 36″-42″ wide. Whenever possible, design your navigation so it’s possible to get through the space while using a wheelchair.
• Clearly label all exit doors. Use glow in the dark, reflective, or electrically lit signage.
• Clearly label any portals that can be used for emergency exits, including non-barred windows, fire escapes, etc.
• Make sure all major exit path infrastructure, including public stairs, is made of fire-safe material, and is clearly marked (especially if you have “decorative” or private stairs, lofts, ladders, poles).
• Wherever possible, make sure doors swing open outward (toward the outdoors) rather than inward (toward the inside of the building.) You may need to re-hang the hinges.
• Obtain and install functional smoke detectors (30 feet apart). Test batteries every 6 months.
• Obtain, install, and clearly label non-expired fire extinguishers (75 feet apart)
• Store flammable/combustible material (solvents, gasoline, kerosene, spray paint, etc.) properly: individual containers, flammables cabinets, etc.
• Keep all electrical panels, water and gas valves, meters, etc. accessible and identifiable with a minimum 3 feet of space at their front and sides at all times, in case someone needs to shut them off in an emergency.
• Make sure your electrical wiring is properly grounded and attached to breakers, so if the system overloads it shuts off in lieu of exploding. If you regularly lose power during events, first be thankful that the breakers are working as they should, but also acknowledge that your system is not adequate to handle your needs. You must update the system, or modify what you book there until you can update it.
• Provide a designated outdoor smoking area, free of clutter and flammables, with fire-safe disposal containers.

• Limit the number of attendees based on your venue’s size and staff the entrances/exits to make sure it doesn’t get too full.
• Announce the location of exits before and during each event.
• Do not allow smoking, candles, or incense indoors. If need be, suggest alternatives (abstention, vaping, nicotine patch, gum, edibles, etc.)
• Make sure that people who are familiar with your venue are easily identifiable. If something goes wrong at an event, people need to know who can help.
• Ask your community for support. Many of us are contractors, electricians, plumbers, construction workers, architects, firefighters, acousticians, food safety experts, etc. who might be willing to at least evaluate your conditions and suggest options or rank the importance and immediacy of changes needed. Offer an exchange based on what you can afford and the financial resources you can access. Free admission for an agreed duration or number of events? Organize a fundraiser to compensate them for their labor and expertise? Ask if anyone is wiling to help pro bono if you truly have no alternative? Just talk to your people and work it out.
• Make it your standard practice to communicate accessibility (or inaccessibility) information on event promotions, especially in media like Facebook where unlimited text is allowed. That way, attendees can consent in advance to the conditions they’ll experience in the venue. Some specifics to note:
• Wheelchair accessibility of venue & restrooms
• Primary languages of performance or text content; availability of ASL or international langue interpretation
• All-gender restrooms, or gendered restrooms
• Scent-free space or scented products used
• All-ages or age-restricted
• Space for chest feeding/pumping, diaper-changing

• If you can help your community because you have a skill or expertise in building safety, reach out to venues. Make it clear up front what your credentials are, what your boundaries and availability are, and if you are willing to work pro bono/for trade and barter/financial compensation, and don’t be shy to expect some kind of compensation for your efforts. Your hard work and wisdom are worth it.
• When attending public events, be aware of people who may have more difficulty getting in and out: people with disabilities, children, elders, people who are intoxicated. It is standard emergency-protocol to keep oneself safe first when an emergency is actually taking place, but in non-emergencies we can all be more aware of each other’s needs when we are together, generally speaking.
• Speak up. We have begun to establish a culture where it is considered helpful and welcome to demand safer spaces that are free of behavioral threats, such as gender-based and sexual harassment, abuse, assault, misogyny, homophobia, transmisogyny, transphobia, racism, xenophobia, ableism, fatphobia, ageism, classism, and bigotry in all its forms. We must also include literal building and life safety in our demands to keep our spaces safe—that is integral to disability justice, as well as overall community safety. If you witness questions that are questionable but you’re unsure about them, ask someone who is involved with the venue – you deserve to understand. If you know something is dangerous, call it out immediately and demand change so the venue can become a safer space for your whole community.

The Architect’s Studio Companion: Rules of Thumb for Preliminary Design, 5th Edition– an architectural manual that may be inaccessible to some (due to cost and extensiveness), but contains a lot of the info that is needed overall
BUILDING: A DIY Guide to Creating Spaces, Hosting Events and Fostering Radical Communities
A Guide to Fire Safety in Industrial Spaces – This goes more into detail on many of the tips I listed above.

Mokedo is hosting a vigil/fundraiser for the Ghost Ship fire on December 9. Donations to those affected by the fire can also be made here. In addition, Olympia’s K Records is donating all proceeds of sales for dance-music producer Joey Casio’s releases on its label to the Ghost Ship Fire Relief Fund. Casio was slated to play the warehouse party that night and is still reported as missing.