By Eric G. Bachman
A purpose of preincident intelligence is to identify the challenges facilities present to a fire department. This practice does not solely encompass active facilities, but should be inclusive of inactive facilities as well. As long as a building is standing, it is a hazard to the community and, more importantly, a threat to the safety of firefighters. Inactive facilities demand concentrated preparedness efforts.
Fire departments are likely well aware of the challenges of certain higher profile, active facilities; this is especially true for those which they respond to frequently. Conversely, the perception of hazard is lessened when no activity occurs, particularly when a facility has no history of an emergency.
Consider the saying “Out of sight, out of mind.” A fire department that does not have full sight of the district it protects is not likely to be successful when confronted with unrealized hazards. But sometimes a similar perception is formed for inactive or unoperational facilities. Businesses—large and small—are often absolved, restructured and, in many cases, have their components dismantled and sold off. Sometimes, its parts are more profitable than its whole. Others just go out of business for various reasons. This often leaves an empty building that can remain stagnant for a long time. When this occurs, the “out of sight, out of mind” cliché transforms into a mindset of “out of business, out of danger.” This is a misguided perception with fatal outcomes.
INACTIVE SITE TYPES
There are many terms used to describe inactive sites. Three common adjectives are “unoccupied,” “vacant,” and “abandoned.” Although these terms are very similar, there are distinctions. Their definitions, connotations, and interpretive subjectivity can foster inconsistent perceptions during preincident preparedness initiatives and incident size-up.
Many fire service leaders have championed expert research of vacant and abandoned properties. They have also published many resources to convey their experiences and the common hazards and to heighten cautious operations. This article is not a duplication of their work but rather it is a reinforcement of never discounting preparedness when responding to these sites.
Categorically, inactive sites present common disposition hazards to the fire department. Each hazard, however, is unique and demands concentrated efforts to identify their inherent challenges. Like with any preplan, the information is only as accurate as the day it was collected or observed. Active facility can present constantly changing conditions. Inactive sites can also present fluid changes in condition, especially those that are not maintained or are not secure.
As trivial as some may regard semantics, the words we use are a basis for subsequent thoughts, actions, and results. Things are not always black and white; sometimes the simplest of terms have varied meanings that are subject to interpretation and yield a gray area of perspective. Within fire department standard operating procedures (SOPs)/guidelines (SOGs) should be a “definitions” section that delineates common and department-specific verbiage, facility descriptions included. This will help reduce misconceptions of meanings and foster consistency in preincident and postdispatch actions.
“Unoccupied,” “vacant,” and “abandoned” are terms often used synonymously. However, when looking at published definitions along with fire service and individual perceptions, they are different. The gray area associated with each is something that should be refined within the fire department so that all personnel are on the same sheet of music. Maintaining a consistency of terms within the department and with mutual-aid companies is important to foster common perspectives and limit subjectivity.
“Unoccupied,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “not busy” and “not lived in.” These are subjective; one could debate the difference between “unoccupied” and “vacant.” However, when facilitating training preplans, I suggest that “Unoccupied”’ represents an empty facility, after hours, or when the site is not operational, i.e., no employees or occupants are inside.
A school is a common example where there are specific times it is unoccupied such as overnight and during weekends (photo 1, right). If there are after-school or weekend functions where students, staff, or athletic programs are being conducted, then obviously it is not unoccupied. Other venues with specific operational periods would qualify as unoccupied after business hours such as a store (photo 2), a restaurant (photo 3), and daycare center (photo 4).
The mindset that I suggest students use regarding the term “unoccupied,” is that of a site that is generally maintained. It can be expected to be equipped with the materials and process equipment associated with the operations. Infrastructure such as utilities are in place. Other systems such as alarm and protection systems are installed and likely operational. I am not suggesting a utopia; the human factor can negate any assumed elements. Using the term “unoccupied” in an initial size-up should elicit certain expectations of the facility. However, do not take anything for granted.
“Vacant,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “not occupied by an incumbent” and “free from work or activity.” This certainly could be argued as being the same as “unoccupied.” For the purposes of offering specific distinctions, there are many factors that can differentiate “vacant” from “unoccupied.”
Unlike the school example above, these sites are likely for sale or available for lease. In many cases, the contents to support the previous operations have been removed. They are relatively move-in ready and generally need no major structural changes or other major modifications. Vacant facilities typically are maintained to some degree to entice a new buyer or leaser. Vacant properties generally will not have anyone on site except for perhaps a property maintenance staffer who may occasionally visit the site for certain upkeep. In many strip malls, there are vacant compartments (photo 5) available for lease, typically for some type of mercantile venue. Flexible buildings (i.e., flex buildings) (photo 6) offer footprint spaces that can be modified to the tenant needs.
The mindset that I suggest to students for “vacant” is similar to “unoccupied” with regard to site maintenance and utility infrastructure. The status of built-in alarm and protections systems may be questionable and it is likely that “vacant” means empty. As a result, the human factor can change assumed elements. Using “vacant” in an initial size-up should elicit certain expectations of the facility and, subsequently, influence operational strategy and tactics.
The third inactive site status is “Abandoned.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as, “Left without needed protection or care” and “Left by the owner.” This term may present a more prevalent assimilation among personnel than the unoccupied and vacant terms, especially when considering the two definition criteria above. Abandoned, simply, is a structure no longer in use, not secured, and left to deteriorate (photos 7-9). There have been many articles on vacant property hazards. We have heard about the intentional booby-trapping of some sites to harm firefighters. The compromising posture of all facets that abandoned properties pose should be cause for guarded operational strategies and tactics.
Many of our fire service brethren have made the ultimate sacrifice in abandoned buildings. In 2007, one Georgia firefighter died fighting a fire in an abandoned house (NIOSH Report F2007-02). In 2010, two firefighters were killed and another 19 were injured fighting a fire in an abandoned building formerly used as a commercial laundry site in Illinois (NIOSH Report F2010-38). Perhaps one of the most recognized line-of-duty death incidents in an abandoned building is the 1999 fire in a former cold storage warehouse in Massachusetts that killed six firefighters (USFA Technical Report TR-134). Most recently, in April 2012, two Pennsylvania firefighters we killed checking for extension in an exposure building to a six-story abandoned warehouse fire after it collapsed. These are just a few examples.
The vacant property fire problem is a real and present danger. The National Fire Protection Association (NPFA) published a report in 2009 on vacant building fires. It captured some impressive statistics that provided valuable information. That report can be found on-line at http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/os.vacantbuildings.pdf . In some areas, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) has adopted vacant building marking systems that provide a compromised conditions warning. A simple online search for “Vacant building markings” will yield many resources and examples. These marking systems are a valuable preincident preparedness aid. But, as mentioned earlier, the marking is only as accurate as the day the conditions were observed. Persistent or extreme weathering, acts of vandalism, and vagrancy are fluid and can quickly change the conditions.
Understandably, a fire department’s workload prohibits it from conducting what it wants to do and forces its hand to prioritize its efforts. Often times, preplanning is a lesser concentrated aspect. When engaging in preplanning, the higher-profile and occupied facilities are typically given top priority. Preplanning is a broad process that is not just about dedicating time to walking through a structure. It includes maintaining a rapport with entities such as the local planning commission and the local emergency planning committee. This fosters two-way communication with the goal of interagency cooperation and coordination. Other nontraditional resources should be researched and consulted with as well.
Using the unoccupied school as an example, preincident coordination should be attainable because the occupant is known and present. For abandoned sites, the owner typically cannot be found; if known, they are reluctant to cooperate. Therefore, coordinating cooperative preincident efforts is extremely challenging. Accessing an abandoned structure to identify preincident conditions is subject to the local authority.
For vacant properties, in accordance with the perspective outlined above, there may be resources that a fire department typically does not use such as a property management company can be contacted to provide information on spaces they are trying to lease. In other cases, a property may be for sale. Do not discount calling the realtor and inquire to the status of the structure or its contents and infrastructure. You may be surprised at the results.
Some departments may have other terms to reference unoccupied, structurally deficient, or compromised structures such as “derelict,” “dilapidated,” and “blighted.” Regardless of what is used, all personnel should be trained on the intended frame of reference. However, do not get caught up in semantics because there can be a fine line between each as well as overarching gray areas. There can be differing degrees of how a building is considered maintained. Descriptions, however, must be effective and be representative of certain goals that influence the strategies, tactics, and rules of engagement.
Photos by author.
Eric G. Bachman, CFPS, is a 28-year fire service veteran and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.