Cities are starting to place stronger focus on the threat abandoned buildings pose to firefighters. This emphasis comes at least in part due to lawsuits like the one filed by the family of Chicago Firefighter Edward Stringer, who died in 2010 while searching for possible squatters in a vacated dry-cleaning business. The property had been vacant for five years and cited multiple times by the city for non-compliance. Stringer’s family is suing the building’s owners, while the city itself has received bad press for not going after the owners with more vigor.
“It is a good case for all of us chiefs to learn from,” said Robin Nicoson, chief of safety for the Indianapolis Fire Department, who has been following the Chicago case closely. “I think that [the lawsuit] is going force better procedures to be put into place compared to what cities have now.”
The case was partly the impetus for Indianapolis to strengthen its own efforts when it came to the city’s more than 9,000 abandoned properties. While the dilapidated properties are an eyesore to neighbors, they also are a fire hazard and a risk to firefighters, Nicoson said. Often, this is because properties become safe-havens for squatters who may unintentionally start a fire. But most of the time, fires are set on purpose, with about 90% of the city’s vacant-property fire incidents deemed arsons.
In addition, fires often reoccur at the same abandoned property. If buildings are left standing after a fire, it leads to a risk of injury to or death of firefighters who still must enter properties during a fire because their first mission is rescue, Nicoson said. However, such a building could collapse because the previous fire weakened its integrity.
“It’s absolutely not acceptable to go into the same structure twice that’s been on fire,” he said.
To protect firefighters and its citizens, Indianapolis now has a system in place to demolish structures after a fire occurs if it can be proven that there is damage to the structural integrity of the building.
When a fire occurs Nicoson’s command staff calls the city’s Department of Code Enforcement. Code enforcement manages any unsafe properties that meet the statutes of the state of Indiana for abandoned buildings, which provides for an emergency demolition order if the existence of unsafe premises presents an immediate danger to the community.
A city structural engineer comes to the fire scene and conducts an inspection. If they deem a building unsafe, it is immediately torn down within three hours. Tearing down such buildings is essential because they not only pose a risk to firefighters but to other residents of the neighborhood, Nicoson said.
“An abandoned structure that’s been involved in a fire has some integrity and structural issues,” he said. “Anyone can walk into there, and it can collapse on them.”
Nicoson recommended that chiefs nationwide partner with their code enforcement colleagues to ensure abandoned buildings are destroyed, especially after they have been on fire. Otherwise, they could be “putting firefighters in harm’s way,” he said.