Vacant and abandoned buildings pose significant problems to many fire departments in the United States. They're unsightly, attract criminal activity and are a threat to public safety. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that more than 10 civilians die and 6,000 firefighters are injured every year while fighting fires in these properties. NFPA statistics also show that more firefighters are injured while operating at fires involving vacant or abandoned properties than in any other property classification. The loss of six firefighters operating in a vacant property in Worcester, Mass., in December 1999 was a tragic example of the hazards these buildings pose to communities.
Unoccupied properties that are secure and well maintained don't pose the threat to public safety that properties which are unoccupied and open to unauthorized access do. When there is no viable owner, the property is considered abandoned. In 1996 Cornell University research on urban residential fires, Charles Jennings describes the issue as the most striking indication of residential neighborhood decline, threatening the stability of neighborhoods and undermining the value of investments made by other property owners.
These conditions have resulted in significant fire problems in cities such as Detroit; Houston; New Haven, Conn.; Utica, N.Y.; and Lawrence, Mass. For commercial or industrial properties, the issue may be that the building has reached the end of its useful life cycle and that it would cost more than the building is worth to improve it for continued use. Environmental pollution and the high cost of mitigation also are factors in the abandonment of commercial properties. Whatever the cause, these rapidly deteriorating buildings can become havens for the homeless and vandals, as well as magnets for criminal activity. Vacant and abandoned buildings aren't just an urban problem, they can be found in very small towns as well.
Uninhabited buildings that are open to unauthorized entry have a very high probability of intentionally set fires. When fires occur in these buildings, they present a host of unusual and dangerous problems to firefighters. Since the buildings are uninhabited, fires may develop for significant periods of time before they're detected and reported. The buildings may contain unprotected hazardous materials and fuel packages that would not be found in occupied buildings. The removal of equipment or structural components and deterioration due to age or weather can weaken the structure, causing rapid failure early in a fire. Firefighters may encounter open shafts, stairways, pits or holes in floors that wouldn't be found in occupied structures.
One of the best methods of reducing the threat the buildings pose to firefighter safety is to prevent the fires. To accomplish this goal, communities must prevent unauthorized access in the short term, and then rehabilitate or demolish the structure in the long term.
Proper security means that unauthorized access to the building is prevented through locking or boarding up the property using techniques based on the potential threat to the structure. In its National Arson Prevention Initiative, the U.S. Fire Administration recommends a reinforced board-up method for high-risk properties.
While the major building and fire codes used in the United States provide jurisdictions with the authority to order these actions for buildings that are hazards to public safety, thousands of unsecured properties exist. Why? The answer is almost always cost. Passing the cost of security or demolition on to the owner is the best answer.
However, if the building is abandoned or the owner refuses to deal with the problem, it becomes a public safety issue that the community must address using tax revenue or grant funding. If a community doesn't have an active program to track vacant and abandoned structures and require them to be secured or demolished, the fire chief should make it a priority to get one as fast as possible.
Once the community has identified the structures that are vacant and abandoned, what actions should the fire department take? Two of the 13 recommendations in thereport on the 1999 Cold Storage Building Fire in Worcester, Mass., might help to answer this question.
- Recommendation 1: Fire departments should ensure that inspections of vacant buildings and pre-fire planning are conducted to cover all potential hazards, structural building materials (type and age), and renovations that may be encountered during a fire. This will enable the incident commander to have the necessary structural information to make informed decisions and implement an appropriate plan of attack.
- Recommendation 10: Fire departments should identify dangerous vacant buildings by affixing warning placards to entrance doorways or other openings where firefighters may enter.
The fire department should be aware of vacant and abandoned properties in the community. If the community doesn't have a formal process to track the buildings, the fire department should begin the process by having companies develop a list of vacant and abandoned properties within their first-alarm district.
With the properties identified, the department should then make every effort to evaluate the properties and develop pre-fire plans. Knowledge of a building and the hazards it poses is critical to the decision-making process when a fire occurs in a vacant or abandoned structure.
An evaluation form for vacant and abandoned buildings was developed as part of the International Association of Arson Investigators/Abandoned Building Project. Designed for use by fire companies, the form helps to focus the attention of the evaluators to the specific hazards that are common in vacant and abandoned buildings.
Communities also should consider developing a marking system for vacant and abandoned properties to alert firefighters to the potential hazards under fire conditions. The evaluation of the building is an opportunity to rate those hazards and determine if the building should be marked. For buildings that pose significant hazards, such as holes in floors, deteriorating structural members and combustible interior finishes, firefighters may be directed to operate from the outside in a defensive mode in all cases except where there is known life hazard.
The system adopted in Worcester after the Cold Storage Fire was adapted from one in New York City. In this system, a sign with a white X on a red background is used to indicate that the placarded structure is extremely hazardous. Interior firefighting operations should be conducted only when there's a known life hazard with specific consent of the incident commander. A white slash on a red background is used to indicate that interior operations can be conducted with extreme caution.
The marking system provides an easily recognized indication of the potential hazard the building poses to suppression operations. Data regarding the hazards in known vacant or abandoned buildings also should be made available to responding units via radio or computer.
The most important concept that firefighters and command officers must understand when responding to fires involving vacant and abandoned buildings is that the buildings themselves are inherently dangerous. Hazards commonly found in these buildings include:
- Open shafts;
- Pits and holes due to removal of equipment;
- Structural degradation due to weather and vandalism;
- Exposed structural members;
- Penetrations in barriers such as walls, floors and ceilings that allow abnormal fire travel;
- Combustible contents;
- Maze-like configuration;
- Blocked or damaged stairs;
- Potential for delay in discovery of a fire;
- Potential for multi-room fire on arrival; and
- Potential for extension to nearby structures.
These potential hazards are some of the reasons that the rate of firefighter injuries in these properties is significantly higher than for any other property use. Firefighting operations in buildings that are known to be vacant should be conducted with extreme caution. Interior firefighting operations should be attempted only after a size-up has determined that these operations can be conducted safely.
Where there are indications of structural deterioration or other hazards listed above and no known life hazard, the incident commander should consider defensive operations. As noted earlier, buildings that are properly secured should have a very low potential of life hazard. This should affect the decision as to ordering an aggressive interior attack or a more cautious defensive operation.
Fire suppression personnel should receive training regarding the hazards that these buildings pose and standard operations for the jurisdiction. Companies should be provided with data regarding vacant/abandoned buildings in their response district and the results of the evaluations completed on these properties.
The decision to commit interior firefighting personnel should be made on a case-by-case basis with proper risk/benefit decisions being made by the incident commander. The commitment of firefighters' lives for saving property and an unknown or marginal risk of civilian life must be balanced appropriately.
Fire departments also should consider alternative methods for searching hazardous structures, such as the use of thermal imaging devices from the outside. Where there's a known life hazard, special precautions should be taken during interior operations. Precautions will be specific to the incident and building but might include:
- Limiting the time that crews operate in the structure.
- Providing interior crews with very specific tasks and objectives.
- Providing each crew with a safety line or operating hose line.
- Using thermal imagers to guide interior crews.
- Closely monitoring interior crew progress.
Where defensive operations are considered, provisions should be made to protect personnel and apparatus from structural collapse. An adequate water supply also should be provided to protect exposed structures.
While the fire department responds to the fires in vacant and abandoned buildings when they occur, they may not have the authority to intervene prior to that response. To deal with the risks the buildings pose to firefighters, fire chiefs must work actively with other leaders in the community to properly address the problem.
The building and health code officials usually are the primary code enforcement authorities. Surveillance of at-risk properties is usually a function of the police department. Funding for security measures and the demolition or rehabilitation of abandoned properties normally will be a function of the community development official or department.
If these individual departments in the community are not working together to deal with the issues presented by vacant and abandoned properties, it's unlikely that the community will be successful in dealing with the problem. Departments or offices that normally must be involved in the process include:
- Mayor or city manager,
- Tax collector,
- Development director,
- City attorney,
- Police department,
- Fire department,
- Public works,
- Building inspector, and
- Health inspector.
Because dealing with vacant and abandoned buildings isn't usually top on the list of community leaders' priorities, the responsibility for making these individuals aware that action is necessary and a critical firefighter safety issue often rests with the fire chief. The materials provided in the IAAI/USFA Abandoned Building Tool Box (see page 34) may assist departments in their effort to maintain an awareness and willingness to act within the community and its leadership.
Jon C. Jones is a fire protection consultant from Lunenburg, Mass., where he was a call firefighter for 28 years. Recently he was a project manager of the IAAI/USFA Abandoned Building Project.
Strategies for vacant buildings
Several strategies can be used to manage vacant and abandoned buildings.
- Determine the legal authority provided by building and fire codes and ordinances adopted by the community.
- When necessary, adopt an anti-blight ordinance that empowers the community to take proper action to secure and mitigate vacant and abandoned properties.
- Develop a system to identify at-risk properties and track those that are vacant or abandoned.
- Evaluate vacant and abandoned properties.
- Institute a system that communicates potential hazards found in vacant and abandoned buildings to responding firefighters.
- Develop a marking system that alerts firefighters to potential hazards in vacant and abandoned buildings.
- Initiate programs for local government to mandate proper security for vacant and abandoned properties.
- Enforce requirements for the securing of vacant properties by owners.
- Monitor the integrity of security provided for vacant and abandoned properties and establish a system to initiate repairs when required.
- Identify potential public and private funding sources that are available for securing, rehabilitating, or demolishing vacant or abandoned buildings.
- Develop programs to identify properties that require demolition.
- Develop programs that assist in the rehabilitation of viable properties.
Abandoned building toolbox
Shortly after the tragic fire that took the lives of six firefighters in a vacant building in Worcester, Mass., the leadership of the IAAI began planning a program that would increase awareness of the hazards that vacant and abandoned buildings pose within communities. In October 2000, the USFA awarded a grant to assist the IAAI in this effort.
The objective of the project was the development of materials to assist public officials in dealing with vacant or abandoned buildings within their jurisdictions. Materials developed as part of the project were targeted toward the safety of fire suppression forces involved in fighting fires in vacant or abandoned buildings and the reduction of incendiary fires involving these properties. Materials developed as part of the project were to become a toolbox that community leaders could select from to address vacant and abandoned buildings and the hazards they represent.
To accomplish the objectives, a Technical Advisory Committee was established, and two demonstration communities, Worcester, Mass., and Lewiston, Maine, were selected. The Technical Advisory Committee provided project staff with input regarding the vacant/abandoned building problem. The committee helped to focus the objectives of the project and assisted in the development and review of the materials developed for the toolbox.
A significant component of the project was to provide support to the demonstration communities and to take the lessons learned from this effort and develop the toolbox materials. Assistance was provided by the project manager and two fire protection students, who served as technical assistants. The communities received support in the development of an evaluation form, assistance in identifying vacant and abandoned properties and locating owners, training fire department personnel to perform building evaluations and developing pre-plan documents, and supporting public awareness efforts in both communities.
The IAAI/USFA Abandoned Building Project Tool Box is available on a CD-ROM from the U.S. Fire Administration and the International Association of Arson Investigators Inc., 12770 Boenker Rd., Bridgeton, Mo. 63044; <<a href="http://www.firearson.com" target="_blank">www.firearson.com>.
Codes and ordinances
For any program aimed at reducing fires in vacant or abandoned properties to be successful, the community must have the power to act when such properties are determined to pose a public safety risk. This power comes from the codes and ordinances that are adopted by the jurisdiction, either at the community or state level. In most cases, the primary authority comes from the building and fire codes that are in force in the community. There also may be anti-blight ordinances that are adopted at the community level.
The key elements of an effective ordinance aimed at addressing vacant/abandoned buildings include:
- Criteria defining proper security,
- Requirements for the removal of combustible contents and hazardous waste,
- Establishment of an inspection/evaluation process,
- Requirements for posting “No Trespassing” signs,
- Establishment of a marking system to alert emergency responders that a property is hazardous,
- Requirements for the maintenance of existing fire suppression and protection systems,
- Definitions of the responsibilities of the property owner,
- Establishment of an enforcement process,
- Penalties and fines for noncompliance, and
- Requirements for the posting of a performance bond by the owner.