It’s Just a Vacant

Getting a run in the middle of a drill isn’t the easiest situation to rebound from quickly. Trying to get all the equipment back on the rig with speed and efficiency is often comical to watch. Plus, we have learned from experience, and hopefully someone remembers to go down each side of the apparatus on the way to the crew cab to make sure the compartment doors are secured in the closed position. Seeing the dashboard’s open compartment light and hearing the warning buzzer go off when the chauffeur puts the rig in drive only add to the delayed response.

While responding to a report of “smoke in the area” on the highway, most of us thought that with the cooler weather we most likely would encounter some homeless people surrounding a warming barrel/ “campfire.” Slowing down near the scene, we scanned the area and found nothing. The dispatcher informed us of another call for another location, so we headed in that direction. As we pulled up, the chief was on scene and reported that a jogger on a bike path reported smoke from the stairs of a monument. Initially, we thought someone dropped a cigarette into one of the cracks and maybe rubbish or leaves were burning and that this was going to be a simple “can” job. We used the apparatus to block two lanes of the highway for our safety, which was one of our paramount concerns, and began our investigation.

As we approached the scenic monument overlooking the river, we saw wisps of smoke erupt from the marble stair treads, and it smelled like a combination of things. Not seeing any flames through the cracks, we went down to the end of the monument. There was a security fence, and large marble stairs led beneath the monument. We placed a combination A-frame ladder over the wall and onto the stairs for easier access and so no one would get hung up on the fence with tools and equipment.

When we got down beneath the monument, we noticed that the bricks that sealed the vacant structure were almost completely removed, and we could see smoke inside. We entered the building slowly, knowing it had been vacant for years and could have a multitude of problems inside (holes in the floors, needles, broken bottles, collapse potential). We noticed that the smoke was pushing through the tile-blocked walls in many places. Immediately, we detailed two firefighters to try to get below this level and see if there was another entrance where we could locate the fire.

As we proceeded in, we spotted the fire through a wall and floor at the far end of the room, but our access to it was cut off. When we entered, we had passed a room that looked like a closet: It had metal lockers and an old large metal-plated door propped up that looked like it had rotted off the hinges and was leaning there. With these objects and the heavier smoke in the closet, we didn’t notice another door toward the rear. As we entered the closet, we immediately found a large hole in the floor. We relayed this information over the radio. We couldn’t locate anything with which to cover the hole.

Moving forward cautiously and around objects, we came to a room of rubbish on fire. There was no door to close and contain the fire, and we needed a line to extinguish the fire. While the can was holding the fire in check, we had to perform a primary search.

As we moved forward, slowly climbing over mounds of material, we encountered a bed next to the fire room. It had a pile of blankets clumped up on the middle of it, and it looked like nothing. Sweeping the halligan onto the bed and pulling the blankets down, we found two homeless individuals huddled together. Startled wasn’t the word-the pile didn’t look like people to us. Shaking the bed and them, we woke them and removed them from the structure.

Because of the structure’s size and the various alcoves we had already found, we continued the primary search after checking that the pressurized water can was still holding the fire in check and the engine’s line was almost in position to extinguish the fire. Moving slowly through the rest of the structure, we saw other areas that had previously collapsed and open holes in the floor that went down numerous stories. Luckily, the primary search proved to be negative, and we rejoined the others to overhaul the fire area. Our secondary search was a little more drawn out because of the piles of material that could have hidden a body; after we found that the clump of blankets on the bed contained people, we weren’t taking any chances of missing someone.

As we repacked the hose, our chatter turned into an informal critique. This was the first “vacant” experience for some of the newer members. They couldn’t believe how people could adapt small alcoves to create living spaces. One of the older members pointed out that there were also old bunkers built into the hill, from the Revolutionary War days, that the homeless have set up camp in. In a fire a few years ago in one of these bunkers, after extinguishment, the solid concrete ceiling let go from the metal suspension rods and collapsed in a pancake style. Luckily, no one was injured, and all members were outside the bunker when it collapsed.

Always use caution at vacant buildings. Slowing down our aggressive tactics and performing a continuous size-up can often prevent injuries and tragic events. Remember, they’re not a Groundhog Day occurrence.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on

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