During these difficult economic times, firefighters are called to respond to an increasing number of fires in vacant, abandoned and derelict buildings. As such, it’s imperative that we know the safest means of completing our operations in these hazardous structures–and that begins with a thorough size-up.
On a fire, it’s common to hear command tell us to “go to the roof” and then see an eager ladder company make a beeline to go topside to do what they do the best–ventilate the structure. Although this motivation to get to work is priceless, it’s critical that crews conduct a size-up to get a general impression of the building before ever stepping foot on the roof.
Once operations begin, the size-up should continue throughout the incident. Because ladder companies are performing functions from the exterior of the building, they are usually able to get a better read on the structure and relay pertinent information to interior crews as it relates to their tactics.
Further, when conducting a size-up, firefighters can use a few key factors to help determine the building’s condition. When it comes to life hazard, there is always the potential that someone inside the structure started the fire, and crews may decide to initiate a search. However, firefighters must consider the type of structure they are working on when deciding how long an offensive firefight should be or how to ventilate the structure.
With that in mind, let’s now look at the differences among these structures and how this can impact decision-making about operations.
The words abandoned, vacant and derelict are often used interchangeably, but there are distinct differences among them.
- A vacant structure is somewhat maintained, meaning that it is able to be occupied or used; it just doesn’t have any occupants in it at that time.
- An abandoned structure is one that is not in use and, more importantly to ladder crews, is not maintained.
- A derelict structure is a run-down and dilapidated building that is extremely dangerous. Firefighters should not operate on top of (or from within) these buildings. We often think derelict structures are not occupied; however, it isn’t that uncommon to find lived-in houses or fully functioning businesses that are not maintained or that do not adhere to any building codes.
Vacant Structure Ops
When looking at a vacant structure, if it was a good and stable building when it was occupied, it’s most likely in the same condition, as it is intended to be occupied again. The overall “general impression” of the building is most often good, and a ladder crew may feel confident they can achieve rooftop operations.
For interior crews, the obvious sign of vacancy, especially in residential structures, is a lack of furniture; however, in many buildings with low or no visibility due to smoke, it may be difficult to tell whether furniture is present. Further, some businesses may still have items inside, such as shelving. And when relying on feeling only, these items may give the impression that the building is occupied when it’s actually vacant.
As a ladder crew approaches the building, there are other key clues to consider when determining whether the structure is vacant: an abundance of newspapers in the driveway, solicitations at the door, no vehicles present when there normally would be, and/or lock boxes near the main point of entry. Doors that have extra locks or chains provide extra security and may also be a clue that the structure is vacant.
Abandoned Structure Ops
Abandoned buildings are a lot more dangerous than vacant buildings in regard to structural stability. These structures, whether residential or commercial, are usually not intended to be used again and, therefore, won’t be maintained. As such, fire protection systems are usually inoperable, and rooftops are likely not safe. These buildings are usually boarded up and may not have utilities running to them.
An abandoned building is best identified in a preplanned setting, and should be relayed to everyone working on the fireground. Further, once a building is identified as abandoned, ladder companies should strongly consider horizontal (rather than vertical) ventilation to support interior crews.
Fire crews should also make it a priority to gain access or disengage the security devices on the windows and doors (most commonly plywood), so that they may be removed quickly in case the interior crew needs to make a rapid exit. This can be done by keeping two bolt heads in place so that the device is easily removed–but still under control. It’s important to not completely remove the security devices, as this may compromise interior conditions.
Derelict Structure Ops
I had always assumed that “derelict” buildings were abandoned buildings in a more advanced state of dilapidation–but there’s more to these structures than that. Derelict structures are essentially “run-down” buildings that, although assumed to be empty, may actually be used on a daily basis, both residentially or commercially. The general impression: You wouldn’t feel good even going to the roof to hang Christmas lights on one of these buildings. They may have awkward additions, numerous roof lines, cracks in walls, windows and doors that may be covered–and a generally dangerous appearance. Derelict buildings often do not adhere to fire code and therefore pose a serious threat to firefighters. Ladder companies should not make the roof on these structures, as there is no way of knowing what is holding up the rooftop. Because many of these buildings don’t have a typical floor plan, ladder crews should identify forcible exit locations early and be prepared to open them accordingly.
Preplan Your Structures
Ladder crews should cruise their first-due streets and identify these buildings, especially abandoned and derelict buildings, before they have to make split-second decisions on the fireground. Because new types of security devices frequently come on the market, ladder crews must be able to identify new devices early and research the best ways to force them open during fire operations. Preplanning will also help identify the status of utilities. If the structure has secured utilities, ensure that they’re shut off properly. If a building appears to house trespassers, reach out to local law- and code-enforcement personnel to secure the building.
Risk vs. Benefit Analysis
All of these structures pose serious challenges to ladder crews trying to safely and efficiently perform ventilation duties. With these types of structures, it’s very common to have ladder crews tasked with alternative functions, such as forcible exit. Further, crews must take a close look at the risk versus benefit associated with these structures, particularly as it pertains to the probability of viable victims inside. These structures are notorious for arson and have claimed the lives of many firefighters. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Check out these articles on identifying & accessing boarded-up structures
As Foreclosures Rise, Departments Should Review Vacant-Structure Policies
Methods for Accessing Boarded-Up Structures (Part 1)
Forcible Entry on Structures with Uncommon Board-Up Features (Part 2)