Fire Studies: Fires in Vacant Buildings: Why Are They So Deadly? Part 1

On April 9, 2012, a fire struck a complex of vacant mill buildings in Philadelphia, PA’s Fishtown section. The complex, formerly known as the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery Building, consisted of a group of interconnected two-, four- and five-story buildings configured in the shape of a U covering much of a city block.

The fire was initially reported by a utility worker who noticed smoke in the neighborhood and suspected there was a trash fire. He notified the fire department and continued to investigate. At 3:13 A.M., Engine 2 was dispatched for the reported trash fire. On arrival, the lieutenant surveyed the area and realized that the fire involved a vacant, five-story building with heavy fire conditions present. At 3:18, he requested a full first-alarm assignment.

The rapidity with which the fire spread through the vacant complex showed the fury of a fire storm. Just four minutes later, the lieutenant requested a second alarm. Battalion 8 struck the third alarm at 3:27 and Deputy 2 struck the fourth alarm at 3:40 and the fifth alarm at 4 A.M. The fire was fought in a defensive mode of attack. Exposures on the Alpha, Charlie and Delta sides needed immediate protection. Master streams cooled the exposures while other streams attempted to control the fire within the multiple fire buildings.


Fire attacks exposures

The Alpha side was Boston Street; on the Charlie side was York Street. The heat wave from the fire conducted across both streets, attacking the exposed buildings. The Delta side had structures that were adjacent to the fire buildings.

Large embers started numerous fires in buildings as far as five and six blocks away. Approximately 40 companies responded to the five alarms and additional companies were dispatched to the fires caused by the flying embers in the surrounding area. A building collapse occurred as the raging fire destroyed the buildings. Freestanding walls remained in some locations.

The exposure building on the Alpha/Delta side was a furniture store consisting of three-, two- and one-story sections with the one-story portion of the building immediately adjacent to the four-story section of the fire building.

The fire was placed under control at 5:21 A.M. Companies continued to pour water onto the fire buildings with their master-stream devices while other units were checking the interior of buildings on the Delta exposure for spread of fire. Ladder 10 personnel were in a one-story section of a furniture store immediately beneath a free-standing wall of the four-story section of the fire building.

At approximately 5:55 A.M., the wall collapsed onto the roof, crushing the one-story building and trapping four members of Ladder 10. Lieutenant Robert Neary and Firefighter David Sweeney were killed; one firefighter was severely injured and another firefighter received minor injuries. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been tasked with doing an investigation of the incident and will prepare a report as to their findings and to hopefully answer the question of why Ladder 10 was at that location and recommendations to prevent similar situations.

The vacant building

Every building – inhabited or vacant – goes through various stages of natural deterioration. Proper maintenance will minimize most breakdowns, whereas little or no maintenance, even in an inhabited structure, will result in degradation. Experience has shown that people tend to fix not only what they can afford to fix, but also that which inconveniences them.

Any fireground problem normally encountered will be accentuated in a vacant structure. Fires in vacant buildings cause more firefighter injuries and deaths than other structural fires. The many dangerous conditions found at vacant building fires will test firefighters. They must remain alert to the task at hand. When operating at a vacant building fire, the incident commander must control the natural aggressiveness of the firefighters to ensure a safe operation.

Definitions of vacant buildings

Vacant buildings can be categorized into two distinct types. The first type is a structure that has been vacated and is awaiting resale. The structure itself is basically sound. The second type is a building that has been vacant for a time. These buildings have been stripped of any contents that would have a resale or scrap value, including all piping, toilet and plumbing fixtures and kitchen cabinets.

Some fire departments define an abandoned, vacant property as one that has no occupants and is neglected with no efforts made to preserve its value or condition. Though these buildings are empty of furnishings, they can become receptacles for trash. In many cases, these are virtually unusable structures in varying degrees of decay, and a working fire within can become a death trap for firefighters. These buildings are frequently abandoned by owners who do not want to be found. The cost of demolition far outweighs the value of the property. The expense to rid the community of the blight created by these structures is often borne by the local government.

A concern of fire departments is the possibility of arson for profit in declining areas. Unscrupulous owners, realizing they are unable to sell the property, may attempt to take the easy way out of an unprofitable situation. These fires leave behind shells of buildings in various degrees of decay, awaiting insurance settlements. The vacant buildings become an invitation for trespassers to vandalize the remaining contents and start additional fires.

Effects of weather

Further damage to these already deteriorated buildings is caused by the weather. Leaking roofs and lack of paint on windows and cornices lets water attack structural members, weakening the structure. Rainwater entering masonry walls can erode the mortar holding the wall together. It can freeze between the layers of brick in older buildings, causing the walls to separate and diminishing their strength. The problem is compounded if the vacant structure is attached to other buildings. Whether a commercial or residential building, the adjoining properties will be affected. The party, or bearing, wall that is a fire-stop between structures can break down, and a fire entering the cockloft or attic can spread to adjacent properties. This breakdown may affect the structure’s load-carrying capabilities, causing an early collapse.

Due to their diminished strength and exposure to the elements, vacant buildings can be in a very weakened state. The additional weight of firefighters and their equipment, combined with the weight of tons of water used in extinguishment, may be too much for the building to bear. Wood rotted due to constant exposure to the weather will fail rapidly under fire conditions.

The potential for an early collapse in vacant buildings must be anticipated due to their dilapidated condition. Localized collapse is most common, yet major building collapse can also occur. It must be remembered that once a building enters this condition, deterioration is continual and is usually followed by additional collapse.

Marking of buildings

The outward appearance of a building may give immediate signs of neglect and potentially dangerous conditions or may indicate structural stability. It must be recognized that the stability of exterior walls does not guarantee the strength of the roof or interior areas. An ongoing size-up or a closer look on the interior must be performed. At the incident scene there is typically not enough time to perform a thorough investigation of the building’s stability. Size-up will discover obvious collapse indicators, but smoke and darkness can hide collapse signs that could be found with a thorough inspection accomplished prior to an incident.

One method of identifying vacant building problems that some fire departments employ is a routine inspection of buildings and marking a vacant structure on the exterior walls. Markings can entail painting symbols on the front wall or attaching a wooden placard at a specific location to identify and categorize buildings as to their structural stability. Categories can include:

• Too dangerous to enter

• Dangers exist; enter the building only if life is threatened

• Minor interior damage; entry can be made, depending on fire conditions

The buildings are inspected at timed intervals, and if conditions have changed, the markings on the buildings are updated to reflect the observed hazards.

Responding firefighters can use building placards as part of their size-up. Markings are weighed together with information available at the scene. Firefighters must realize that a placard on a vacant building is part of pre-planning and just one component of the size-up process. It is certainly not a fail-safe method of predicting structural failure during fires. Having a building marked as “minor interior damage; entry can be made depending on fire conditions” does not mean that an offensive attack must be made. Changes might have occurred between the time the building was last marked and the time of the fire, which may affect the building’s stability.

Runaway children and homeless people often occupy so-called vacant buildings. They may select structures in the poorest of conditions. These buildings can be structurally unsound. They are selected because the building owners, who would otherwise chase away these unwanted squatters, are not around. The collapse dangers contained within these buildings also keep out anyone who may otherwise hassle them. Most fires occurring in these structures are incendiary and meant to further vandalize the building. Fires may also be started to cook food or provide warmth to the occupants.

People may be inside

Though a building appears vacant, it still must be given a primary search to ensure it is unoccupied. Fires that establish a foothold in these buildings can severely test responding firefighters. Firefighters may be informed on their arrival at a fire that squatters are living in the fire building, but information may not be available as to whether these homeless occupants have escaped the fire. These individuals rarely remain at the scene for fear of being charged with trespassing and arson. A sad commentary is that all too often these unwanted occupants become victims and succumb to the very fires they started to keep themselves alive.

Fires in unusable structures that “house” homeless people will challenge responding firefighters. These responders must consider a multitude of hazards with which they will be confronted, and rescues must be made in the safest manner. Smoke can hide many danger signs.

Multi-story structures may have stairways that are not structurally sound. Rescue from upper floors via portable or main ladders may be a safer operation. Fire escapes installed to allow the escape of trapped occupants can become death traps. Deterioration due to a lack of maintenance can result in loose treads, rusted railings and lack of support where railings are anchored into the walls of the structure. Firefighters or occupants can be injured. Portable ladders, main ladders or aerial platforms should be used if a fire escape is in questionable condition. n

Next: Firefighting considerations