Occupied: How One Department Effectively Moved Out as Protesters Moved In

The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread across the U.S. and across borders from major cities to small towns. According to the Occupy Together website, more than 1,500 communities around the globe have ongoing Occupy activities. While politicians and protesters debate, it’s up to public safety to move out their personnel effectively in order to keep everyone safe. As many cities are disbanding camps, Occupy Movement organizers say they aren’t going away—and fire departments are taking stock of lessons learned for future reference.

IAFC On Scene asked Joanne Hayes-White, fire chief of the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), to share her department’s experience and insights.

How did the San Francisco Fire Department prepare for the Occupy Movement activity in the city? What actions did you take to stay on top of issues?

Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco was occupied by Occupy San Francisco (Occupy SF) in early October 2011. Almost as soon as the site was occupied, the city and county of San Francisco held multiple internal meetings with the mayor’s office, the police and fire departments, the mayor’s office’s Coalition on Homelessness, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Public Works and the Recreations and Parks Department.

At times, these entities also held joint meetings with organizers of the Occupy SF encampment to seek input and resolution. In addition, San Francisco paid close attention to what was happening in other Occupy protests throughout the Bay Area and the nation.

Members of SFFD’s Division of Fire Prevention and Investigation Bureau visited the site daily to inspect for fire-code violations, including open flame use and storage or use of flammable/combustible gases. All inspectors were to immediately report unsafe conditions to not only the SFFD, but also the Department of Public Works, the Department of Public Health and the police department.

What impact did the encampment have on daily operations?

The SFFD’s administrative fire prevention staff conducted daily, weekday-morning inspections with other city agencies, including San Francisco police officers. Additionally, SFFD suppression battalion chiefs conducted daily evening and weekend inspections and reported results and findings, including any fire-code violations, to the fire marshal. At times, patrols/inspections were increased to three times per day, depending on conditions in and around the encampment.

The San Francisco Fire Department conducted nearly 90 inspections in the two months of the camp’s existence.

Were there any special and unforeseen challenges that fire departments should prepare for in an Occupy or similar encampment?

Occupy SF inspections continued for eight weeks. Conditions at the campsite continued to worsen, almost on a daily basis.

As time progressed, the camp grew and not all of the participants shared the same voice of Occupy SF. Many of the new inhabitants were homeless people; many had mental health or addiction issues, while others formed anarchists groups. Drugs and alcohol were being used by some campers during the day and night. In addition, campers were not the same from day to day. Some stayed for a day while others stayed for weeks.

The site proposed health hazards not only to those inspecting the camp, but also to those occupying the site. Pets roamed the area, garbage was rampant, hazardous waste and raw sewage was noted. Private entities provided portable bathroom facilities, but the maintenance schedule was not frequent and they soon overflowed.

When members of the SFFD attempted to correct fire-code violations, such as use of electrical systems (including lead acid batteries) to provide power to computers that were used to communicate with other outside Occupy movements, some campers became confrontational and agitated. Occupiers filmed our department’s inspections with phone cameras and other wireless devices.

In addition, on a regular basis, media made attempts to interview not only fire department representatives, but also representatives from other city and county agencies.

Another issue the SFFD faced was that there was no one person or group considered as the designated leader or contact for the occupiers. Therefore, the safety concerns weren’t always delivered consistently to the group.

Overall, do you think the outcome in SF was successful for public safety?

On December 7, 2011, the San Francisco Police Department cleared out the encampment. Once health and safety issues came to the forefront for both occupiers and members of the general public, the camp was disbanded.

In general, the city and county of San Francisco handled the situation very well. Under the direction of Mayor Lee, city agencies worked collaboratively to ensure that rights to free speech were protected to the fullest extent possible.

Joanne Hayes-White is the fire chief of the San Francisco Fire Department.

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