Chief Concerns: Fires in Vacant Buildings

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.

Question 3 – Can a building be partially vacant or partially occupied? Look at the structures in your jurisdiction and point to those that may be partially vacant. When is life hazard not a problem? This and other factors make our job complex, especially when working with low- or under-staffed fire companies.

Question 4 – Will all this information (and more) have an impact on how you attack a vacant building fire? Some in the fire service try to brush the problem aside by saying, “It’s just a vacant building – we don’t care about vacant buildings and don’t need to worry about them.” Really? Does that mean we let them burn? It’s most likely that if firefighters can, they will attack, especially if such fires threaten wider harm to their communities.

 

Strategies and tactics

No one wants firefighters to be injured or killed in the performance of their duties, especially for buildings in poor structural condition or with hazardous or dangerous contents or little or no monetary value. Many people believe firefighters should never enter a vacant building to fight a fire aggressively, but are they saying that about EVERY building they determine to be vacant?

Every fire occurring in a vacant structure must be evaluated on the factors that are present, with firefighter safety at the top of the list. If a fire is going to be fought offensively, then organize available resources to perform firefighting operations with engine and truck work in mind. That’s the key to safety and efficiency.

Engine operations include proper positioning of early-arriving engine apparatus to accommodate the arrival of truck companies. Quickly stretch attack lines that are of the right diameter and length to get to the fire for attack. In many cases, vacant buildings have been vandalized and “stripped out” of copper and other metals. In such buildings, walls and floors may have been torn apart and will let fire spread quickly throughout the interior. With that in mind, stretch additional hoselines when there is any appreciable fire and it is extending.

Truck company operations may be vital to the outcome of an offensive fire operation, especially when there is extension. The building should be opened up and the fire and its products channeled out of the building. Buildings that have been vandalized and stripped out should not be ventilated with power fans, unless you want to push fire throughout and burn the building to the ground. Doing this when firefighters are inside may trap them.

An important ventilation concern is where extra-secure window and door coverings are in place. Learn where these devices are used, what they employ and what it takes to remove them. Should firefighters become trapped or lost operating inside a vacant structure where these systems are used and they cannot get out by their primary egress, they will have an almost impossible job trying to open them from the inside. In some frame structures it may be possible to use a chain saw or other power saw to cut around door and window frames for complete removal rather than waste time and effort working on them.

One item worth mentioning – “If someone wants a building to burn, it’s going to burn!” That means this type of fire can happen in any city, any town, any place. Firefighters must watch for anything unusual while responding, on arrival and while working the incident. Back in the “war years,” many vacant structures were “trapped” – meaning they had been worked on to speed fire growth. Arsonists cut holes in floors and walls and to cause a collapse they placed plastic bags of a flammable liquid where heat from the flames would cause the bags to fail and release their contents, sometimes around unsuspecting firefighters. Some buildings contained exotic flammable liquids that caused them to burn at higher-than-normal fire temperatures, sometimes even melting water pipes! Some of those buildings were reported to be consumed within minutes.

 

Conclusion

Vacant buildings are here to stay, and they will be found where you least expect them. Train and prepare for fires involving them. Understand that buildings are vacant for a variety of reasons and circumstances, and they may lead to unexpected situations and fire behavior for you.

Life safety is always a concern. Even partially vacant buildings may create extreme accountability problems for firefighters. Follow sound firefighting practices while using available resources when called to these buildings.

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