Almost everyone says “fighting fire in vacant buildings.” As a matter of fact, that is the title of one of the City of (NY) Fire Department`s most informative operational bulletins except for the title. First, it should say “abandoned” buildings–many of our urban and suburban structures are sound and safe and just not occupied for a “moment.” Structures abandoned is another matter.

Second is the poor choice of the word “in.” A structure is vacant and abandoned if no one is in it. Many departments have procedures for fighting fires in these dangerous, collapsing piles of trash we call “vacant buildings.” Most call for cautious decisions prior to commitment of forces and mostly for an outside attack. Well, let`s look at that. Fires in vacant, abandoned structures probably present the only opportunity for us to get any practice fighting structure fires from the interior that equate to the “real world.” Pallets soaked with kerosene and lit afire in concrete structures and propane gas simulators never quite make it. So a coordinated and deliberate offensive firefight could be in order after a proper “vacant, abandoned building” size-up. Also, if it is “safe” to fight from the interior, we will be back in service sooner. Nothing takes longer than an exterior firefight on a building that is not “broken apart” yet on the inside.

But you can only establish an outside firefight if the building stays vacant! The minute a firefighter (a company or a freelancing nitwit) crosses the threshold of an empty structure, that structure is occupied, and the firefighting tactics have to shift until the building becomes vacant again. This uncoordinated action is the reason for the injuries in structures like this.

How do we know that the building is vacant? Many rescues have consisted of yanking squatters out of harm`s way (at least from fire) in fires in abandoned buildings. And, unfortunately, many squatters have been found after the firefight was over. These vagrants are usually in the rear of the larger vacants. They “hole” up there because the small fire they start from scraps of wood for heat or for removing the coating from copper electrical service wires they had just removed from “next door” is not as detectable by the police or other intruders. They are able to seal themselves from the elements better in the rear. But mainly, they are generally less detectable. They are located on lower floors if housing is their goal–there are more exits to the ground! They are located on upper floors if the reason to be there is not legal!

Indications that illegal “tenants” may be present. There are signs that tell us that otherwise vacant building may have illegal “tenants.” They include makeshift boards on the windows, applied from the inside; electrical cords strung from the light pole in front of or from an adjacent building (with sympathetic tenants and an absent landlord); front doors that can be opened; and “shades” made from sheets and other scraps of cloth. There are many more.

Interior Hazards of These Structures

Electrical supply. As you move through the structure, there are many service wires down and hanging in the occupiable space–armor-covered BX wiring is the worst. A friend of mine lost his eye in a structure when the jagged edge of wiring cover “ticked” his eyeball and collapsed it on the spot. Hands out in front of you and palms facing you is the way to walk through these darkened hulks of yesteryear.

Stair treads and landings. They are always suspect–that is, if they are there at all. Firefighters should adopt a policy of always putting their weight on a foot that is placed directly over the riser of a staircase and not on the tread. Holes are throughout. Many are put there by “klondikers” (people taking useful metal and other furnishings and fixtures out of the structure). Still others serve as “escapes” to the floor below. And others are booby traps for firefighters!

Sealed buildings. They are a ventilation nightmare whether the firefight is from inside or outside. In the old days, plywood was pounded in from outside or pulled in from inside. Concrete and cinder block was another matter. We finally learned that it is removed from the side opposite the side from which it was installed–windows not on fire escapes could be pounded in from outside, and the fire escape windows had to be pounded open from the inside.

Then came the strongest horizontal seal of all–the HUD window. The plywood fitted from the outside and bolted through “strongbacks” of wood that span the inside wall behind the window opening is by far the strongest and most difficult construct we have faced in a long time. The key is that the wood brace spanning the inside opening must be broken to remove the window. Or all the bolts must be made to be “out of the system.” The problem with these structures is that the door openings are the weakest of all seals, and the vagrants (or others who cause spontaneous combustion) have no trouble accessing the interior of these wooden “safes.” The only successful way to remove enough of these seals quickly and safely enough to support any interior operation is to do it from a tower ladder bucket.

Second fires and “dropped” fires are other problems. The arsonist usually starts more than one fire. And the anarchist arsonist bent on killing firefighters fills remote areas with a combustible liquid (higher flashpoint) so that a second fire starts after firefighters arrive and are at work. The killer arsonist has been known to start a top-floor fire AFTER carefully placing open cans of gasoline into the cockloft area. He knows fire department operations and that ceilings will be pulled in rapid fashion and usually on top of embers of the first fire! Nice people!

We have had “safe-looking” linoleum flooring in halls fail under firefighters who were advancing handlines down the passage to the fire apartment. It was carefully placed over a hole cut to kill firefighters. Without these “local” dissidents many of you never see, these vacant buildings still present a unique problem to firefighting. We will discuss more later. n

TOM BRENNAN has more than 33 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the City of New York (NY) Fire Department as well as four years as chief of the City of Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief`s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995).

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