Question 1 – What is a vacant building? What criteria do you use to determine that a structure is unoccupied?
In the 1970s, some fire departments had separate categories for fires occurring in vacant and abandoned buildings, the thought being that if it looked like people had just walked away from a structure, leaving possessions inside, and the building appeared to be ramshackle, then it was “abandoned.” A veteran battalion chief once told me an abandoned building had no ownership, but I have always thought every structure has an owner, be it a person, group or corporation – even local, state and federal governments own vacant buildings.
Question 2 – When does a building become vacant? I don’t think you can establish this through a measure of time. For example, if a family leaves their home for a vacation for an unspecified period, does their home become a vacant building? What about seasonal businesses in buildings that are open during tourist season and closed in the off-season?
Why buildings become vacant
Vacant buildings have been around for hundreds of years and will always be around. They may be old structures in old neighborhoods in old cities that have outlived their usefulness or succumbed to hard economic times. Or, vacant buildings may be newer structures in newer cities that have also fallen to economic difficulties. There are many reasons how and why buildings become vacant.
Nowadays, firefighters usually refer to a building with no regular occupation inside it as “vacant” and apply the term to buildings ranging from very small, one-room “outbuildings” to former industrial facilities and high-rises.
If you are a firefighter in an old industrial city that has lost much of its employment base, you are most likely seeing a high number of vacant structures in your jurisdiction. Many cities have fallen on hard times as industry has died or moved away. People leave neighborhoods “abandoned” and neglected because there are no jobs. As a population moves out, blight and its problems move in.
While creating a hardship for those cities and towns, the economy and its problems has created hardships for other areas of the country as well. Recent times saw explosive growth in newer developments and previously undeveloped areas. That gave people a belief that good times and fortune were available to everyone. But then the bubble burst, and those areas have newer vacant buildings and depressed values.
Financial toll on the fire service
Vacant buildings are a barometer of a community’s future. If your fire department receives its funding from the public through property or income taxes, money lost by people and businesses moving out means money lost for firefighters. In many cases, fire departments have lost personnel and fire stations because of economic hard times. For fire departments that rely on grants and similar programs, what happens when the state and federal money dries up?
In researching material for this column, I reference the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report Vacant Building Fires by Marty Ahrens (http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/os.vacantbuildings.pdf). The information is quite interesting and useful. For example, between 2003 and 2006, the U.S. averaged 31,000 fires in vacant buildings per year. Of those, 63% were in residential structures – 58% in one- and two-family homes and 5% in apartment buildings. During that period, fires in vacant buildings caused 50 civilian deaths, 141 civilian injuries and 4,500 firefighter injuries. From 1998 to 2007, there were 15 firefighters killed in vacant building fires.
According to Ahrens’ data, 43% of vacant building fires were intentionally set – arson. Automatic extinguishing systems were found in 2% of vacant building fires and functioned in 68% where fires were large enough to cause them to operate. Where the automatic systems failed, 82% had been shut off. That should lead us to realize that even where automatic fire protection systems are on site, they are not 100% effective, and we still need a fire department to deal with those fires.