America’s deadliest building fire for more than a decade struck Oakland, California, on December 2nd 2016, killing 36 people attending a dance party in a warehouse that had become a cluttered artist collective. The disaster highlights an open secret: many cities lack resources to inspect for fire risk all the structures that they should. Even though the Oakland building had no fire sprinklers and at least ten people lived there illegally, no inspector had visited in about 30 years. How might cities make better use of the inspectors they do have?
A handful of American cities have begun to seek help from a new type of analytics software. By crunching diverse data collected by government bodies and utilities, the software works out which buildings are most likely to catch fire and should therefore be inspected first. Plenty of factors play a role. Older, wooden buildings, unsurprisingly, pose more risk, as do those close to past fires and leaks of gas or oil. Poverty also pushes up fire risk, especially if lots of children, who may be attracted to mischief, live nearby. More telling are unpaid taxes, foreclosure proceedings and recorded complaints of mould, rats, crumbling plaster, accumulating rubbish, and domestic fights, all of which hint at property neglect. A building’s fire risk also increases the further it is from its owner’s residence.
Predictive software designed at Harvard that Portland, Oregon, will soon begin using will do that. Perhaps more importantly, the city’s fire chief noticed that buildings marked as being the biggest risks are clustered in areas lacking good schools, public transport, health care and food options. Healthier, happier people start fewer fires, he concluded. He now lobbies officials to reduce Portland’s pockets of deteriorated areas.
(The Economist. www.economist.com/the-economist-explains