Are abandoned buildings a menace to first responders?

By Jerry Smith

Government health & safety codes require property owners to secure a vacated structure and prevent unlawful entry into such location. There is no doubt that abandoned/vacant buildings over time do threaten public safety in many neighborhoods across the landscape of America. Who could forget the infamous icehouse inferno in Worcester MA several years ago, where a tipped over candle and the resulting inferno would trap and kill six firefighters. Yes, these brave firefighters not knowing the victims had already left the building were searching for two transients believed to be inside this smoke filled abandoned building. The question remains in 2006 and beyond… are you aware of all such buildings/structures in your first-in district and are they clearly identified as such in case of fire?

In order to clearly identify the threat and risk to first responders many fire departments have targeted these abandoned buildings with markings on the outside that warn firefighters to use extreme caution like “do not enter” if building is on fire. Of course, it’s up to each and every company commander to know their first-in district target hazards and especially those compromised occupancies where debilitated structures may exist. Too often, firefighters are falsely lured into empty/burning buildings where the risks and hidden hazards are just too great for safe operations.

We know from years of fire ground experience that unoccupied buildings in blighted areas are being used for criminal activity like Meth Labs, and local Crack Houses. Abandoned buildings also become “targets of opportunity” for criminal arsonists. That should be enough to raise fire officer concerns and awareness in their district pre-fire planning efforts.

To move around/navigate in a heavy smoke filled structure that’s in a state of disrepair could increase the risk for building failure and collapse of weight bearing components like floors, walls, and roofing materials. Not to mention the ever-present risk of explosive flashover.

November 29, 2006: I’m very saddened to report that six days ago after being critically burned at a vacant house fire, an Atlanta firefighter died of his injuries early this morning. Sadly, firefighter Steven Solomon passed away in Grady Memorial Hospital’s Burn Unit. Solomon, married with 4 kids, was seriously injured in a flash over at the abandoned house fire in northwest Atlanta on Thanksgiving evening. Arson investigators have determined an unattended candle left by homeless people staying in the unoccupied house started the fire. Unfortunately, this fire becomes the 94th LODD event in 2006 to claim the life of a brave firefighter.

Too often, innocent firefighters are required to enter burning structures where the dangers are greatly increased by unstable atmospheres and rapidly changing conditions unforeseen to advancing firefighters. Now mix that volatile environment with heavy smoke and elevated heat and the “disaster clock” may be running down for something to cause structural failure, an unexpected flare up or large explosion and the scene inside becomes untenable for human survival. Like you, when I led my firefighting company inside a burning building I wanted to believe that we had a good chance to get out alive and do so without serious injury.

Yes, we continue to work in a very dangerous profession and understanding that fact of life should be a driving force to stay out of burning abandoned/vacant buildings where no life hazard exists. Please, take defensive action, protect exposures, contain the fire and let the fire burn it self out. Where appropriate this may help to rid the area of a menace to the neighborhood and a blighted landmark in the community.


ABOUT THE WRITER: Jerry Smith, a former Los Angeles City Fire Captain and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Fire & Rescue Division Assistant Chief, retired from active service in 1987. After 45 years, he remains a “tell it like it is” and advocate for firefighter rights and safety.

Jerry is also the WebBoard Administrator for the Emergency Grapevine, an “all-risk” message forum for emergency response and recovery personnel around the world. A public safety web site established in August 1997. And a staff writer for the award winning Los Angeles Firefighter. Official publication of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City – Local 112, IAFF, AFL-CIO-CLC. Jerry’s regular commentary is also reprinted on several prominent Fire/EMS web sites, newsletters and print magazines.

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