Old Buildings, New Challenges

By Eric G. Bachman

Developing and maintaining a preincident preparedness program can be a never-ending, time-consuming endeavor. Someone that claims he finished preplanning is like saying he finished training; he does not understand preincident intelligence. Hopefully, no one in your organization will ever proclaim this.

A well-maintained preincident intelligence program requires evaluation of all facilities and affirmation that the information is current and accurate. It is as important to identify new facilities in the community as it is to reevaluate “completed” facility preplans. Business turnover occurs, and you do not want to be surprised when you arrive at an address expecting a certain occupant only to find something totally different.

Preincident intelligence requires the fire department to be intimate with its district. It fosters understanding of community behaviors, nuances, and potentials for improved preparedness. Sometimes, as we go about our daily business, we may become content when nothing extraordinary catches our eye. But subtle changes may present themselves. If not noted and periodically confirmed, they could catch the fire department off guard. I’ve certainly caught myself saying, “When did that go it?”         


Business turnover occurs at some places more than others. In some cases, turnover is more administrative than a process or structural aspects. My bank, for example, is the same physical building it has been since I opened my first checking account 30 years ago. Its name, however, has changed five times. The interior layout and locations of the teller counters, the vault, and the office locations are the same. The only observable change inside is the aesthetics. Its turnover was administrative. And not to minimize administrative changes, whatever change occurs, you must update this change for your department and its intelligence program. 


The footprint—or the foundation outline of a facility—may not change with a new tenant. The new occupant may work with the available space, and exterior changes may be nominal. Inside, however, drastic changes could occur. New or removed walls, upgraded systems, new processes, and increased occupant and content loads may occur. Without intelligence on these changes, the fire department will be unprepared.

REALTED: Reeder on Fire Behavior and Building ConstructionNorwood on Preplanning InspectionsPisciotta on Preplanning Construction Site Hazards

Sometimes, exterior changes may be obvious depending on the facility. Access changes in accordance with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other local code requirements may be constructed. Aesthetic overhangs, signs, and awnings may be installed to “dress things up.” Regardless, note and prepare for all changes, disseminating among the rank.


The reference to an “old building” for this article is not exclusive to an aged structure; it is a broad assimilation to any building or compartment not being used or occupied by its initial occupant. It also includes ready to occupy spaces such as compartments in a strip mall or flex building.

Old buildings are everywhere. They become old buildings for a variety of reasons. The occupant may have overgrown the space and moved to a larger space. The structure may, in fact, be old chronologically with deteriorated infrastructure and upgrades and not as cost effective. The tenant may have fallen on hard times, declared bankruptcy, or otherwise just up and left. Intelligence on old buildings and new occupants is necessary to realize structural, systems, and other human and content changes that will hamper fire department operations.

Their changes can be extreme, so much so they could warrant the fire department to develop new and specific standard operating procedures. Or, they could be the catalyst for the fire department to acquire special resources or obtain specific training. However, the preferred way to realize response deficiencies is through preincident intelligence, not postdispatch. 


Whether the facility is newly constructed or part of a renovation project, fire officials must develop and maintain a good rapport with many external partners including municipal officials responsible for granting permits as well as real estate brokers, property management agents, and (of course) facility management. 


A 3,400-square-foot standalone business occupancy that was previously operated as an insurance office sits vacant for several months. Recently, it was renovated and has transformed into a thriving bar and grill (photo 1). Generally, the overall footprint remained the same. However, some distinct external changes were made including a deck, an access ramp, an attached walk-in cooler, and an upgraded parking arrangement. Internally, after more than $1 million dollars in renovations, the 100-seat facility features a saloon type atmosphere with a decorated wall treatment of nearly 1,300 pieces of pallet wood.

(1) Previously an insurance office, not it a bustling bar and grill.


The old building’s new life presents challenges and hazards. The interior wood pallet finish will contribute to rapid fire spread. The increased occupant load, including staff, enhances life safety issues. And another consideration is apparatus approach. The site is located at the end of a single access driveway, presenting only one way in and out for vehicles. An emergency with numerous people leaving in a panic may inhibit or delay responding apparatus approach. 


An approximately 7,500-square-foot facility is occupied by a piano gallery. The interior was primarily open plan to accommodate the pianos on display, and it contained a couple of offices and amenity rooms. It went out of business and was purchased by a vision-care business that renovated the building. The general footprint remained the same, but the new owner changed several interior and exterior elements. Noticeable from the exterior are two access doorways facing street-side (photo 2), and a new vestibule an entrance was constructed on the parking lot side (photo 3). The interior has been compartmentalized through added storage, examination, and preparation rooms. This presents challenges for search and rescue.

(2) This building’s new occupant enclosed two access doorways on the street side and added a new vestibule and entrance on another side.

(3) Finished exterior of example #2.   


Not long ago, I “completed” preplanning a distribution center of bathroom accessories; grab bars; shower seats; childcare accessories; kitchen cabinet hardware; and door hardware, hooks, and coat racks. The building, of Type II construction, measured 240 x 440 feet with a large open warehouse and an office appendage. The warehouse was open plan with numerous cubicle work stations for parts assembly.

The facility became vacant, was advertised for sale, and soon purchased by a produce distributor who planned numerous changes. During the 10-month makeover, several meetings were held between the fire department and the facility to review the project status. 


The building footprint remained the same, but several exterior changes were planned including expansion of the parking areas to allow full access around the building. Previously, there was not full access by vehicle around the entire building which prohibited apparatus positioning to the rear. New shipping and receiving docks (Photo 4) were constructed which are important considerations for alternate access and ventilation.

(4) Five new dock doors were added to this building for shipping and receiving. 

Interior Arrangement

The original office areas remained virtually unchanged (with the exception of new storage areas built within existing rooms). The warehouse and distribution area underwent a drastic change, with the installation of five insulated cooler and chiller rooms for produce (photo 5). The interconnected coolers, each with preset temperature settings, span the entire length of the warehouse, dividing the once open warehouse into three sections including processing, storage, shipping, and receiving. These units are not floor-to-ceiling compartments, which creates an open void above them and between the process area and shipping/receiving area.

(5) Produce coolers are installed inside the previously open plan warehouse.   

Hazardous Materials

The nature of this business is to keep their products from spoiling. To maintain appropriate temperatures in the cooler/chiller rooms as well as processing areas, the company installed an anhydrous ammonia system for refrigeration. The ammonia room houses the ammonia receiver, condenser, and distribution piping for 8,000 pounds of ammonia in the interconnected system. Understanding the physical and chemical characteristics of the ammonia as well as the ethylene oxide used or banana ripening is important. 

Load Changes

The new cooler/chiller rooms as well as the installation of the ammonia system required the installation of roof mounted chiller and exhaust units. Although it was not needed for the previous occupant, this has increased the roof loading. Although the new load, according to engineers, is within acceptable loading weights, you should consider this during fire operations. The added load, coupled with the lightweight unprotected steel truss roof assembly, will elicit rapid failure of the roof system. 


One the most dynamic old building makeovers to occur in my area was the transformation of a 700,000-square-foot ceiling and flooring tile warehouse into what is now advertised to be the largest indoor sports complex in North America. A once stagnant building that was for sale for several years (photo 6), the changes and challenges with this structure are more than extreme. A climbing center, a fitness center, a food court, and an arcade as well as numerous indoor fields and courts that support more than a dozen sports were installed (photo 7). And, most recently, a 130-room hotel and full-size steakhouse was also added, all within the confines of the original footprint.

(6) This warehouse was for sale for several years.

(7) A partial view of a sports complex interior.   

A facility that once employed a dozen or so workers is now host to several thousand patrons daily. The challenges this facility now presents is drastic when compared to its predecessor occupant. Recognizing the hazards and preparing for potential emergencies is imperative for the safety of the occupants and emergency responders.

Constantly monitoring old buildings for new occupants is critical in maintaining an effective preincident preparedness program. Do not be content or think you are finished preparing for emergencies in your community. Contrary to popular belief, your preincident preparedness program will never be “complete.” Times and communities are changing, and fire officials must identify these changes and adapt. Whether they are extreme or subtle, evaluate facility changes against the capabilities and limitations of the fire department. Your firefighters deserve the most up-to-date information on the facilities for which they will be laying their lives on the line.


ERIC G. BACHMAN, CFPS, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service 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.

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