Our nationwide economic downturn has resulted in an increase in the number of vacant and abandoned buildings in all of our response areas. Many organizations and businesses have been forced to cut back or even shut down operations at specific locations, resulting in unoccupied structures that lay dormant. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics have shown that more firefighters are injured while operating at these locations than in any other property classification. Many of these incidents have resulted in fatalities, such as Worcester, MA, in 1999, and more recently, Chicago in December of 2010. There are a few key reasons as to why these buildings pose such risks:
- Any unoccupied building or facility becomes an easy target for arsonists, vandals, and burglars who root through these buildings, salvaging what they can for easy cash.
- These buildings are often ignored for long periods of time, which can result in poor housekeeping and maintenance issues (see Photo 1).
- Utilities and other building services, such as fire-suppression systems, are cut off without consideration of the remaining fire load that remains in the building.
A lot of emergency responders use the terms “vacant” and “abandoned” as the same, but there is a significant difference between the two types. A vacant building is a building that may be empty or unoccupied, but there exists an owner with an expressed interest in the building. One example that our department uses is what we call a “transitional building” that is in the process of changing ownership, but is uninhabited, such as the sale and transfer of ownership of a single-family residential dwelling (see Photo 2). An abandoned building is a building where there is no visible or clear cut owner/landlord of the building, or one that can easily be contacted. These buildings are usually unsecure and poorly maintained, raising the risk level to responders when they arrive for an emergency at this location (see Photo 3).
The Hazards Within
The most costly risk that is in the forefront for responders regarding these buildings is fire. These buildings, when left open to unauthorized entry, have a very high probability of incendiary fires. In fact, between 2003 and 2006, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that more than 30,000 structure fires were set in vacant and abandoned buildings, resulting in more than 50 deaths, 4,500 injuries to firefighters and well over $600 million in damages per year. The mixture of the resolve of the arsonist combined with the deterioration of the buildings due to age and weather will significantly weaken these structures. Interior hazards to firefighters include open floors and pits, stairways removed from floors, holes in walls for fire spread, and compromised suppression systems. These buildings also pose a significant threat to exposures. With no one reporting these fires until they are well advanced, exposure spread can be expected to occur rapidly, increasing the potential for a conflagration (see Photo 4).
The next most prominent threat is vandalism and theft. A large proportion of thefts in vacant and abandoned buildings involve the removal of copper electrical or plumbing materials. These incidents diminish the capabilities of suppression and notification systems that are in place in the event of a fire or emergency. Furthermore, the degradation of these properties becomes an eyesore on the community, as maintenance and upkeep diminish to a point where the structure can be deemed unsafe.
Bad weather can also be a detriment to the building. In the case where the heat has been cut off, the potential for a broken pipe in the building is high. This leak can flow for days and can lead to catastrophic failure to a part of or even the entire building. When maintenance is reduced or eliminated, dangerous situations can lay in wait (see Photo 5). Consider the collection of snow or rain that sits atop the roof due to clogged drains; this can lead to excessive loads and collapse of the roof assembly.