As Foreclosures Rise, Departments Should Review Vacant-Structure Policies

With the economic downturn and rising numbers of home and business foreclosures, communities across the United States are seeing more and more vacant buildings. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of vacant homes rose to 18.6 million in the first quarter of 2008–5.7 percent higher than the previous year. And as more businesses fold, the number of empty commercial properties is likely to skyrocket as well.

Due to squatters vandals and neglect, these empty properties mean more fires. Departments across the country are reporting increased numbers of vacant house fires–and often increased injuries to firefighters as a result. While it’s important to contain these fires, departments must handle vacant structure fires effectively while limiting risk to their firefighters.

“Regardless of why a property is vacant–whether it’s because of foreclosure or something else–vacant structures create real problems for fire departments, ” says Russ Sanders executive secretary of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Section of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). “This is a very important issue in the fire service; more vacant buildings mean more fire problems and more firefighter safety problems.”

How’s Your Policy?

Does your fire department follow a specific detailed policy for approaching vacant structures? “Every department should have a policy,” Sanders says. “[And for those that do] it’s a question of to what extent they stress the policy.”

Review your department’s vacant-structure policy and check it against some expert advice. Sanders points out that, “There is guidance in the NFPA codes for developing these policies and procedures. NFPA 1: Fire Code has an entire chapter on this, starting with how the property must be properly boarded up and secured.” You can also review the textbook that Sanders co-authored with Bernard Klaene, “Structural Firefighting: Strategy and Tactics” (Jones & Bartlett 2007), which is available through NFPA.

Inspect & Plan

The key to coping with fires in vacant buildings is to do all your homework on a building before it burns.
“Do the inspections, ” Sanders urges. “Go look at the property–especially empty commercial properties–and know if there’s an open elevator shaft or an open stairway. Hazards need to be identified through pre-incident planning.” Some hazards can be addressed immediately, either by the department the fire bureau or local government. “You can work with the building’s owner–if they can be found–or with the city to fix some problems, ” Sanders says. Areas of the building can be boarded up or reinforced, for example. “You can even go to court to get a building razed.” Even single-family homes left empty over time can develop hazards such as holes in the floor or a partially weakened roof. “There’s a long list of things you can find in a vacant building, ” Sanders adds.

Tag It

As part of their inspection process, some fire departments will mark vacant structures with important information, using symbols and letters to warn of specific hazards. For example, the Buffalo (N.Y.) Fire Department canvasses neighborhoods twice a year, marking vacant buildings with simple symbols for “vacant” and “vacant/dangerous ” and indications of what specifically is dangerous.

“We had some problems when we started out, ” admits Buffalo’s Chief of Safety Mark Hillery. “We started out using standard construction marking spray paint and I guess that’s not designed to last long. We changed our paint to something more long-lasting and also started using fluorescent yellow to stand out from other paints used by other city departments.” The Buffalo department is currently working on a re-inventory of vacant structures and will add markings for chimney locators on all structures they inspect.

“Lots of departments have this, ” Sanders says of the painted symbols. “That’s what’s behind Annex Q, which is new for the 2009 NFPA Fire Code.” Annex Q–which as an annex to the Fire Code is not mandatory but rather a guideline–details how departments can use a standard placarding system for buildings–and not just vacant buildings. The system calls for a symbol in the shape of a Maltese cross that includes set codes for the contents of the building, special hazards, construction type, sprinkler system and more.

Buffalo’s Hazard Symbols

F — Floors
R — Roof
W — Walls
S — Stairs
C — Chimney
[ ]— Vacant
[X] — Vacant/Dangerous

The placard should be placed on the front of the building, so that it can be spotted and read easily, but that information should also be kept in your department’s computer-aided dispatch system.

The placarding system is detailed in Annex Q of the 2009 NFPA 1: Fire Code (beginning on page 594). Check it out and compare it to what your department and neighboring departments are doing with vacant buildings. However you decide to tag vacant (and other) structures in your community, make it a habit to train all firefighters to search for and read the markings. This simple step could save lives.

You Can’t Fight City Hall

Following is how some cities are handling an increase in vacant homes and commercial properties:

  • The city of Wilmington, Del., requires owners to register their vacant properties. This includes residences that have been vacant for 45 days or more. Registration carries a fee, which increases with the length of time that the building remains vacant. Fees start at $500 for buildings that have been vacant for more than 1 year and go up to $5 000 for a building remaining vacant more than 10 years. The state’s Supreme Court upheld this ordinance after a property owner challenged it.
  • In Burlington, Vt., owners of property vacant for more than 90 days are required to apply for a permit detailing the expected period of vacancy and a timeline for re-occupancy rehabilitation or demolition. The owner is responsible to arrange inspections to ascertain whether repairs are needed whether the building is a danger to the public and whether the building is safe for firefighters and police officers. A quarterly fee of $500 is charged for inspections. Owners failing to make a property safe can be fined $50 per day.
  • An ordinance in Chicago authorizes police to cite owners who don’t take steps to secure their vacant property. Fines for non-compliance are $1 000 per day with a cap of $50 000. Open buildings are required to have an interior and exterior inspection by the Building Department.
  • Ypsilanti, Mich., has enacted an ordinance in which owners of vacant property are required to register the structure with the city. The Building Department and Fire Marshal conduct periodic inspections of all registered vacant buildings. Inspections determine whether firefighters can conduct safe operations within the vacant building. The initial inspection must occur within 30 days of the property being registered as vacant. Property owners are charged a fee for the inspections. Unregistered buildings are subject to inspection to determine if they are dangerous.

From “Vacant Structure Fires and Firefighter Injuries in the City of Flint ” a report by the City of Flint (Mich.) Fire Department June 2007.

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