A wall collapsed during a five-alarm fire in a vacant mill building in Philadelphia, PA, killing two firefighters. This photo shows a ladder apparatus alongside the furniture store and portions of a free-standing wall of the fire building remains. (See part one in the February for more information about the fire).
Photo credit: Photo by Greg Masi
Vacant building fires must be handled in the safest manner possible. Some experts say that firefighters should never fight a vacant building fire in an offensive mode. Their point is that no vacant building is worth the life of a firefighter.
No building, vacant or otherwise, is worth the life of or injury to a firefighter. However, all buildings must be sized-up and the size-up factors weighed as to the best method of protecting life while controlling and extinguishing the fire. A vacant building with known or suspected occupants must be treated the same as any other occupied structure. It is not realistic to automatically fight every vacant building fire in a defensive mode due to the potential life hazard to firefighters that could exist. The incident commander must apply common sense while controlling the aggressiveness of the firefighters to ensure a safe operation.
Attempts to seal vacant buildings by local, state and federal agencies involve closing door and window openings with wood, tin or masonry. These efforts are often foiled and illegal entry continues.
Under fire conditions, these doors and windows will need to be opened by the firefighters to ensure adequate ventilation for firefighting efforts. The removal of sealing material from window and door openings can be time-consuming and challenging.
An exterior attack on fires past the initial stages, or in buildings that contain no occupants, can be a successful tactic. Unlike occupied structures that contain valuable furnishings, water damage is not a concern in vacant properties. The only consideration is the weight that the water adds to the live load in the building.
Following the exterior knockdown or blitz attack with master streams, an interior hoseline team, can then enter the building completing the extinguishing process, if deemed safe by the safety officer. Overhaul is minimized due to the nature of the vacant structure. Smoldering furniture is removed to the exterior for final extinguishment.
Some cities with large numbers of abandoned vacant properties are now reassessing the practicality of offensive attacks at fires in these structures.
Illegal electric hookups
It is common to find varying methods of illegal electric hookups in vacant buildings. Since the building’s electric supply has been disconnected, one method that squatters use is to reattach the electric wires to the previously cut overhead service wires supplying electricity to the building. In place of the electric meter that would normally be needed to complete the circuit, they install jumper wires in the box that once housed the electric meter. Once this has been accomplished, they electrify the building’s wiring system.
Another commonly used method is to attach wiring to the electric service and then to attach the wire to a haphazard setup electrical outlet to plug in the electrical appliance they wish to use. This is often accomplished by stretching wiring along the floor, usually entering a window directly from where the illegal hookup to the service wires occurs. The wiring used for this installation has often been removed from within the structure and shorter pieces of wire are connected together so the wire can reach the desired location. As the wire stretches from room to room and floor to floor, it may be draped over doors or railings. Twisting the bared ends of the wire together secures one length of wire to the next wire. The neutral wire and the hot wire are separated from touching each other. In this type of installation rarely will you find electrical tape or wire nuts used. The possibility of electric shock is high because there is no protection by fuses or circuit breakers. The occupants avoid the locations where the wiring connections are located.
A problem exists when firefighters enter a structure with an illegal electric hookup to fight a fire. A firefighter advancing a hoseline under smoky conditions can come into contact with the unprotected electrical wiring, or the water used in the firefighting effort can come into contact with these bare wires and electrify a portion of the structure.
On the scene
At one incident, an illegal electric hookup was being employed in a vacant building. As firefighters advanced a hoseline up an interior staircase, the entire area was electrified. As the walls, railing and some flooring were charged with electricity, it began to shock the firefighters advancing the hoseline.
As other firefighters came to their assistance, they too became victims as they made contact with the firefighters initially injured. Nine firefighters received varying degrees of electrical shock before a quick-thinking firefighter utilized a tool to remove the illegal hookup and alleviate the situation.
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) released a report on “Vacant Residential Building Fires” (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v11i3.pdf) in August 2010. It noted that an estimated 28,000 vacant residential building fires are reported to U.S. fire departments each year and cause an estimated 45 deaths, 225 injuries and $900 million in property loss.
Fighting fires in vacant buildings can be deadly for firefighters. Firefighter safety has to be our number-one priority. n