Fire in a Detroit Vacant Building

By Michael M. Dugan

A fire is reported in a vacant structure; unfortunately, this happens frequently in the city of Detroit. The Detroit (MI) Fire Department is good at fighting fires in vacant buildings because members fight these types of fires often. A few good actions at fires in vacant buildings will help keep firefighters and fire officers safer.

Fires in vacant buildings usually are not reported early on because there is no one present who will report the fire. A lot of times, the neighboring building is also vacant. If a homeless person is in the building and becomes aware of a fire, he leaves. Line-of-duty deaths have resulted when fire personnel entered the fire building looking for reported vagrants who already exited the building and were across the street observing. Vagrants do not want to be stopped and detained for possibly having started the fire; they fear being arrested. They do not want to see members in uniform, whether members of the fire department or police department. So when a member of the public finally sees the fire or smoke showing outside the structure, only then does the person notify the fire department (if he isn’t too busy filming the fire to call 911). That delay might give the fire significant headway before it is reported.

(1) The member performing the 360° survey has a radio and is observing the building. (Photos by Gordon Nord Jr.) (2) The member performing the survey sees the dormer is giving way and immediately communicates to command and all interior operating forces. This is a Mayday communication that a collapse is occurring.

In vacant buildings, a lack of doors and the presence of holes and other openings throughout can lead to the fire’s increasing in size and area very quickly. By the time units arrive on the scene, the fire might have increased in volume and compromised the building’s structural stability.

360° Survey

First, listen to pleas of civilians with knowledge of the local neighborhood. Then, check the building for signs of squatters and vagrants living inside by conducting a 360° survey of the outside of the building. If you find any openings, communicate that information to the incident commander (IC) and all operating forces that you may have a life hazard. The life hazard assessment must include the firefighters, officers, and current fire conditions within the structure.

The 360° survey also has another benefit: The member assigned to performing the walk-around should look at the building for signs of previous fires, such as smoke stains on exterior walls, window frames showing signs of obvious charring, and indication of visible fire damage on any structural member. If members are operating on a floor and there are signs of a previous fire, this can endanger them, especially if the earlier fire was directly above or below the current fire. The past fire might have damaged structural elements of the building, which might affect interior crews operating directly above or below that area. Signs of previous fires might not be visible from the interior, which is why the member doing the exterior walk-around must be on the lookout for them. Transmit this information to the command staff and all interior forces. It might impact interior operations.

(3) The member moves to an open and removed window to start withdrawing members from the interior as quickly as possible. (4) Firefighters and officers inside the structure start to exit the building quickly to avoid the interior collapse that is possible.

During a recent Google hangout (, Dan Shaw, a battalion chief with the Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue Department, said that when his aide does a 360° walk-around, the aide uses the tablet issued to the chief to take pictures of the sides and rear of the building. When the aide returns to the command post, the IC can view the pictures to get a better idea of the building and any issues or problems. This practice demonstrates the proactive use of technology on the fireground. (

At this fire, a member performed an additional 360° survey looking for fire spread and conditions that might not be visible from the command post or interior. He observed a “doghouse” dormer starting to show signs of structural failure. These dormers are sometimes located in rooms to give more space and ventilation, or they can be over the interior stairs for light. This one appeared to be over or near the stairway; when the member observed it, he called for the immediate withdrawal of members operating on the first floor through an open and removed window. Once all members exited the building and were accounted for, they began a defensive attack. When dealing with an emergency situation like a collapsing dormer, the quickest way out is most likely the best way out. Units avoided operating under the stairway dormer and in the collapse zone.

(5) The officer waits until the last company member is out of the building before exiting after a 360° survey revealed a collapsed roof. (6) After the last member exits the building, members move away from the collapse area quickly. They move along the building until the danger above is beyond them and then move clear of the collapse zone.

A Tactic for Us

The 360° walk-around is a very important part of understanding the building and current fire conditions; perform it at every fire or incident where members are committed into a building in a dangerous situation. If conditions change or the event becomes prolonged, you will need to perform additional 360° surveys in a timely manner.

Perform this tactic for us. On November 15, 2008, the Detroit Fire Department lost Firefighter Walter Harris during a roof collapse in a vacant building. We owe it to him to perform this tactic and do it well.

MICHAEL M. DUGAN is a 27-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, where he served as captain of Ladder Company 123 before retiring in 2012. As a lieutenant, he served in Ladder Company 42 and was a firefighter in Ladder Company 43. He has been involved with the fire service for 39 years.

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