Vacant building fires
Our country has been faced with one of the most difficult economic times in its history. The fire service has felt the effects of this recession as well. Some communities have faced station closings and slashed budgets. We now face new response challenges brought about by these economic conditions. Specifically, we are responding to an increasing number of fires in vacant residential and commercial buildings.
Home foreclosures are at an all-time high, creating an unprecedented number of vacant buildings in our communities, both residential and commercial. Vacant buildings are common sites for accidental fires set by homeless people or kids, but they are also frequently the target of arsonists, some of whom are former owners desperate to get out of a bad financial situation.
Vacant buildings have been the scene of several fire service tragedies and countless near misses across the country.
The Lexington response fire was expanding quickly and exceeding on scene personnel capabilities. An immediate recall was issued for all off duty personnel, and mutual was requested from surrounding departments.
Buildings that are not being used on a daily basis quickly start to deteriorate. Open windows, doors, and holes in the roof allow rain to enter the building. Exposure to the elements destroys critical components of the building’s stability, such as floors, stairways and roofs. Even when they are not on fire, vacant buildings can be in such poor condition that they are inherently unsafe. Deteriorated conditions can also contribute to earlier building collapse during a fire.
When discussing operations at vacant buildings, emphasize the likelihood of deteriorated conditions and how they affect floors, stairways and roofs and can lead to early collapse. The deteriorated conditions of this building quickly led to unsafe conditions for any interior operations.
Operations at vacant buildings should be grounded in a good risk assessment. Many firefighters will say that we are the only ones who can determine whether there is anyone in the building, and there is some truth to that. On the other hand, there is a big difference between arriving at a residential house fire at 2:30 a.m. with a car in the driveway and toys on the porch, and arriving at a commercial building that you know has been vacant for 10 or 20 years.
With vacant buildings, there is always a possibility that homeless people are inside the building. For that reason we will always perform a search when conditions allow. In this case, the fire conditions were too great for anyone who may have been inside to survive. A quick further assessment led to the continued decision to maintain a defensive posture, with the primary objective of containing the fire to the building of origin. The first wall collapsed within 15 minutes of arrival on scene.
A good risk assessment does not mean we are not aggressive, or that we will allow the building to burn while we stand by. It just means that we operate with an intelligent level of aggression in the safest way possible.
One thing that makes vacant buildings a lot different than your garden-variety residential houses: the methods used to secure them while they sit idle. Businesses that do not have the money to stay in business do not have the money to maintain fire protection measures, or properly secure the building when vacated.
The building owners may have just walked away from them, leaving them open or accessible to vandals or the homeless. Some jurisdictions have local codes and ordinances that outline how to secure and protect vacant or abandoned properties. You should take the time to learn local laws concerning securing vacant buildings; it will save you lots of time at the incident. You should take time to review the state fire codes that reference vacant buildings and how they can be marked. The National Fire Protection Association has recommendations on how to secure vacant buildings.
Many vacant commercial buildings are secured using perimeter security fences made of chain-link with barb or razor wire on top. A limited number of gates provide access points and are usually secured with standard padlocks and chains. These padlocks and chains should not pose much of a problem for a trained firefighter with the right tools.
The best method for removing chain-link: a rotary saw equipped with a good metal-cutting blade. Many fire departments rely on standard bolt cutters to tackle this job, but the rotary saw is the weapon of choice.
Boarded up windows and doors often present another challenge for firefighters. Board-up materials on vacant residential properties are often simple sheets of plywood nailed or screwed into window frames — close to what homeowners do to protect their properties in coastal areas before a hurricane).
The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses another common method, so we call it the HUD window. This method uses a sheet of plywood sandwiched between two 2x4s that have holes drilled in them to allow a section of threaded rod with a carriage bolt head on the end of it. The rod can be tightened to secure the plywood to the window. This method minimizes the damage to the building and is difficult to remove without the proper tools.
A newer method of securing vacant properties is to use metal shutters. To remove these you must understand how they are installed and us a rotary saw with a metal-cutting blade.
There are several ways to defeat windows and doors secured with plywood. The most effective is the chainsaw. If the plywood has been cut to the opening size and then nailed or screwed to the frame, simply cut inside the window opening until you have the desired size opening. The more nails and screws used to secure the plywood, the more difficult it will be to remove, which is why it’s easier to cut rather than attempt to pry the sheet off the window.
Simply plunge-cutting the chainsaw bar into the plywood, just as you would do to start a roof ventilation opening can quickly and easily open the HUD window. The chainsaw bar should go deep enough to cut both 2x4s sandwiching the plywood. Most of the time, the 2x4 will be found in the horizontal position across the opening. Once the 2x4s are cut, the plywood can be easily removed.
Choose the right tool for opening boarded-up windows and doors by completing a good size-up of the method used to secure the opening. The chainsaw provides the quickest method except for openings with metal shutters.
Venting vacant buildings that feature additional security measures may require extra time and effort. Use caution because the additional window coverings will affect the interior fire conditions, preventing heat and smoke from venting normally.
Crews removing the plywood or shutters should vent the area of involvement first, and then the entry point. If you open the entry point first, the fire may use that as the vent point, making entry difficult.
This article only touches on some of the many safety concerns and considerations when responding to fires in vacant buildings. Most vacant buildings have a low probability of occupant life hazard and a high probability of danger to firefighters due to deteriorated building conditions and the possibility of arson. Take the time to study vacant properties in your response area and familiarize yourself with the dangers associated with them..
Photos courtesy Michael Rich, Lexington Fire Dept.
Paul Jarrett has served 23 years in the fire service in both the volunteer and career venues and nine years as volunteer Fire Chief with Holly Grove FD. He currently serves as Fire Commander in charge of “A” shift and fire prevention inspections for Lexington Fire Department.
Dean currently works as one of the Assistant Regional Emergency Response and Recovery Coordinator for the Triad Region of North Carolina through Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center Trauma Department.