Fires in unoccupied or vacant buildings require a change from normal tactics. Instead of a rapid entry into the fire building, you must perform a thorough exterior size-up and develop strategies that reflect the hazards found. Use a go-slow approach, such as that used with haz-mat situations, as a guide.

The exterior size-up should start with a determination of the building`s size, the fire location, and a general overall look at the building`s condition. Note exposures, and assign personnel to protect them.

The volumes of visible smoke and fire may give the incident commander information about where the fire is spreading and how much fire is actually in the building. Large buildings require large responses of apparatus and manpower.

The visual early size-up of the fire building`s construction features should identify any built-in features that may hinder or help the IC–for example, fire walls between building sections that limit fire spread and protected stairwells that may give the IC a place from which to operate to stop a fire. Common cocklofts over a row of houses, balloon-frame construction, and cracks in exterior walls may all affect fire spread or increase the danger to operating forces.

Photo 1. The first-due engine arrives at a fire in a vacant row home. Heavy fire is showing out the second floor front, as is heavy smoke from the third floor. The fire is in a three-story building of ordinary construction, approximately 15 feet by 40 feet. There are no attached exposures, and the building appears to be wide open.

Members stretch the first line to the front of the building, and the engine company chauffeur establishes a water source by taking a hydrant or calling for a feeder line. The heavy volume of fire dictates that large quantities of water are needed to control the fire.

Because of the amount of visible fire and the building`s being wide open, expect extension to the third floor. Use the first handline to darken down whatever fire you can safely reach from the exterior. Because of limited manpower, the probable fire on two floors, and the low life hazard to civilians, an exterior attack is warranted.

The first-due truck company officer must confer with the engine officer and, in the absence of a chief officer, decide what type of primary search, if any, can be started safely. It might consist of just a visual check of the front rooms on the ground floor from the building exterior. Upper-floor searches have to be delayed until the fire is contained. If using a master stream, allow time for water runoff; and perform a visual check of the building from the exterior–preferably from a ladder or tower ladder–before allowing personnel inside to conduct a search. If a search is to be performed, based on reports that homeless people might be in the building, keep operating forces to a minimum. Always use proper lighting, and be constantly alert for holes in the floor, missing stairs or banisters, and signs of weakened building components.

Photo 2. Fire involves a two-story, vacant, row house-type building of ordinary construction attached to an occupied similar building. The fire building has heavy fire on the top floor, which has already spread to the exposure building via the front cornice. Fire also is most likely already into the cockloft of both buildings. Smoke is also visible above the concrete blocks in the first-floor front windows, indicating an unknown amount of fire on the first floor as well.

The first line you stretch must go into the exposed building. This is the most severe hazard for fire spread, and the possibility of trapped civilians is very real–nighttime fire, locked front door, no one to greet the fire department. This first line must support the first-due truck company`s rapid primary search of the second floor of the exposure building. It is used to knock down any visible extending fire and for the truck`s pulling down the ceilings to expose fire in the cockloft.

You can perform horizontal ventilation while the truck conducts its search. Determine the need for vertical ventilation by the amount of fire that has extended into the cockloft. If heavy fire conditions exist in the cockloft, you may have to call for additional personnel–to assist in ventilation and removing ceilings.

One truck company member must check the first floor of the exposure for any extending fire and/or victims, as the original fire building had fire on the first floor.

The second engine crew must stretch a line to the original fire building and knock that fire down as quickly as possible. This volume of fire, coupled with the attached exposure, dictates the need to use a 212-inch handline or master stream. The small overall size of the building, approximately 15 feet by 35 feet, lends itself to the use of these powerful streams. From the front of the building, the streams will reach almost the entire floor area. Fire in the rear rooms on the second floor may be out of the reach of the front lines, but access from the rear yard should be possible. If after the heavy fire is knocked down, a visible inspection determines that the building appears stable, you can switch from a 212-inch to a 134-inch handline for final extinguishment. Again, interior forces must constantly monitor conditions in the vacant building for signs of deterioration.

Photo 3. Heavy fire shows from all four windows on the top floor of a four-story vacant multiple dwelling of ordinary construction measuring approximately 25 feet by 50 feet. The only visible exposure also is vacant and is secured by plywood coverings over the window openings.

A tower ladder moves into position to knock down the heavy fire that has control of at least two apartments on the top floor. The building, although sound looking from the outside, has been vacant for a long time and has experienced previous fires. Such buildings are prone to collapse during a subsequent fire.

Based on the information that homeless people have been known to inhabit the building, crews should conduct a primary search on all floors under the protection of a handline. On the fire floor, use handlines to contain the fire to allow truck company personnel to search areas remote from the main body of fire. Once the search is completed and if engine company personnel have made no headway in darkening down the fire, truck personnel must shift from search mode to the support functions of ventilating and opening up ceilings and walls to expose hidden fire and checking for extension to the cockloft and the attached exposure.

Throughout the operation, all members must remain alert to the changing conditions within the fire building. Be aware of water accumulation on floors, cracks in walls, bulging walls, or anything else that might seem out of the ordinary. Inform the incident commander and, if in doubt, pull all members from the building immediately.

Photo 4. Vacant buildings are not found only in the inner cities. Rural areas have abandoned farmhouses, and small towns have houses that have been foreclosed; abandoned; or, in this case, sealed due to a previous fire.

When confronted with an alarm of fire in a sealed building that has little or no smoke showing, conduct operations with the following in mind.

Operations will be delayed due to the time needed to force entry into the building. Plywood used to cover the building openings may be nailed in place or bolted into the openings using 2 3 4s as braces inside the house (“Housing and Urban Development windows”). Either method will delay forcible entry and ventilation.

The delay in getting into the building also means a delay in getting water on the fire. Since the building is in a semiopen state–no glass in windows, tarpaper over roof openings, and so on from the first fire–this fire will have more oxygen and progress faster. This condition, coupled with the openings made during the first fire to expose hidden fire and check for extension in the void spaces, frequently will cause the fire to spread rapidly through the building. As the fire extends and the smoke condition worsens, visibility becomes poorer and debris and openings from the previous fire also become liabilities.

Keep records on previously fire-damaged buildings in your jurisdiction, and note the degree of damage the structures sustained. If a building is too damaged for any further interior firefighting operations, indicate this by marking the building on the outside (see sidebar “Building Marking System”).

Vacant building problems are prevalent in rural areas. Older rural houses that have been unoccupied for years, appearing from the outside to be intact, in fact may have been stripped of their wide plank floors, old ornate trim, and even supporting beams. An unsuspecting firefighter who enters through the front door without sweeping the floor in front of him may find himself in the basement surrounded by fire.

Again, in all operations in vacant buildings, use a go-slow approach. If there is no known life hazard or if conditions prevent an interior search, operate defensively until you darken down the fire. If you suspect that the building has suffered considerable damage and is not structurally sound enough for members to enter, search from the exterior, from a ladder or tower ladder. n


If a building is recently vacant and reasonably sound structurally, it should be marked on inspection for future operating fire forces. The City of New York (NY) Fire Department, for example, uses the following marking system.

An empty box indicates that the building is relatively sound

structurally on inspection.

A diagonal line through the box indicates that the building has

some deterioration, maybe from a fire, and to use caution.

An “X” in the box indicates that forces should stay out of the


Note: These markings indicate the building`s condition during its last inspection–things can change since that time–so always use caution.

Put markings on a conspicuous place that is easy to spot when companies pull up to the building, such as above or near the front entranceway. n

BOB PRESSLER, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter with Rescue Company No. 3 of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department. He has an associate`s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University, is a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and is a member of a volunteer department.

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