Vacant and Abandoned Building Marking Systems

Lt. Michael Daley looks at a well-designed marking system that can identify hidden hazards from the exterior, helping firefighters determine their firefighting tactics.

A System for Fair Warning

In the International Fire Code (IFC), 2006 edition, Section 311 provides some guidance for dealing with vacant premises. This section covers temporarily unoccupied structures and abandoned buildings, and how to safeguard each of them. The document provides guidance when it comes to securing these buildings, safeguarding vacant premises, handling utilities, removal of combustibles and hazardous materials, and fire separation partitions. Of significant importance is the section regarding the placarding of these buildings; in a building that is deemed to be “unsafe” pursuant to the Uniform Construction Code, the Uniform Fire Code shall be placarded accordingly. The IFC identifies the following placard system:

A placard shall be 24 inches by 24 inches with a red background, white reflective stripes and a white reflective border. They are to be placed on the front of the structure and have to be visible from the street. Additional placards shall be placed on the other sides of the building as well. The placard will have the date of the inspection on it as well.

A placard with an open square shall signify that the building had normal structural conditions at the date of the inspection.

A placard with a single diagonal slash shall signify that there are interior hazards to the structure and that interior firefighting operations should be conducted with extreme caution.

A placard with an “X” in the square shall signify that there are significant structural deficiencies within the building, limiting firefighting to exterior operations only, “…with entry only occurring for known life hazards” (see Photos 6 and 7).

If your department does not have any protocols regarding operations and procedures when dealing with these buildings, it is highly recommended that this code requirement be adopted locally by the authority having jurisdiction.

Additionally, our department utilizes an inspection checklist that has been developed by the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), in conjunction with the USFA; it is available for download below by typing “Vacant/Abandoned Building Form” into your favorite search engine. This evaluation form covers multiple areas of concern for our responders; it provides the name and phone number of the property owner, the building security system, working utilities, construction type, status of any fire protection systems, fire potential, overall condition of the structural components, exposures, and any additional hazards that may be on site.

Our fire prevention bureau performs the inspection on a vacant or abandoned building, and files the report with the local construction subcode official. An additional copy of this report is given to the responders, and the information is updated into the pre-plan system that we use in our on-board mobile data terminals. This provides the initial responders critical information for decision-making within the first few minutes of the operation, and the presence of the placard will raise the awareness of the first arriving incident commander (see Photo 8).


The staggering increase in the number of vacant and abandoned buildings across our nation continues to grow exponentially. Many of the communities’ responders across the nation cannot provide a close approximation, or an accurate count, of the amount of vacant and abandoned buildings in the jurisdiction they protect. This year, adopt a resolution to make a sincere effort to preplan all of your high-hazard occupancies, and identify all of your vacant and abandoned buildings; the safety of your team members depend on it.

Until next time, stay focused and stay safe.