Developing Response Guidelines for Fires in Vacant Buildings

BY STEVE IMBARLINA

Every year, numerous firefighters are injured or killed fighting fires in vacant and derelict buildings. These deaths and injuries could be avoided by employing updated “Rules of Engagement” and by incident commanders (ICs) taking the responsibility for controlling firefighting teams. Research shows that firefighters are willing to take more risk than required and are willing to operate outside of the parameters to which they were trained. Additionally, municipal governments must produce a program to abate vacant and derelict buildings before firefighters are forced to make life-and-death decisions while operating in and around these buildings. Fire officers and ICs must be trained and use risk management techniques employed by other municipal agencies and departments.

A risk management process should include identifying resources and exposures, evaluating the severity and frequency of losses, analyzing the available options, choosing the best option, and then evaluating the effectiveness.1 This places the fire department and municipal officials in the position to determine the losses in relation to their relative risk.

Individual fire departments are responsible for determining the answers to some of the tough questions involving firefighter safety and survival by choosing the best course of action. These decisions are based on the resources available to the leadership of that department. Several avenues to follow up on with regard to vacant buildings are presented in this article; the exact combination of solutions will vary for every jurisdiction.

The owners or holding companies have ultimate responsibility for these buildings. There are cases, however, where the owner, bank, and anyone else responsible for the maintenance walk away from the property, leaving the municipality and the fire department to deal with it.

THE PROBLEM AND A HISTORIC PERSPECTIVE

The number of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) in the United States remains at an average of about 100 deaths per year. A review of firefighter LODD statistics reveals that fewer than 25 percent of them occur while operating on scene. These on-scene deaths can further be broken down into several categories such as fires, technical rescues, and so on. The issue of firefighters dying while fighting fires in vacant buildings should be obscene not only to the fire service but also to the public, which supports the death benefits, losses, and other expenses caused by these deaths. The family, community, and fire department are left to pick up the shattered pieces after such a traumatic and senseless loss.

The number of firefighters dying fighting fires in vacant and derelict buildings is not an extraordinarily high number when compared with the overall total of LODD numbers. “Statistically, firefighter death and injury rates per 1,000 fires at vacant building and commercial structure fires are almost four times those at occupied residential structure fires …. Vacant building fires are often at the top of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) per 1,000 fires ….”2

Emergency service delivery differs from many other industries in that decisions and tactics applied must be decided quickly. The dynamic characteristics of building fires necessitate that ICs make rapid decisions on how to react to the situation. They are doing the best that they can with the tools and personnel available to them at the time. The intent of this article is not to second-guess the past decisions of ICs but to try to establish a systematic approach to standardizing the response to fires in vacant and derelict buildings and to standardize the outcomes of such actions.

If we examine the actions of ICs making the decisions to enter or not enter any given structure, we must also examine how firefighters and junior officers are trained. Most, if not all, command level fire officers are usually promoted from within the ranks of the fire service; thus, firefighter training leads to IC training. The accepted priorities of operations within the fire service delivery system are life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation. Life safety may require that firefighters risk their lives in carrying out their duties. It is accepted that the acceptable level of risk to be taken by firefighters should be directly proportional to the incident priority: Firefighters should not be taking the same risks to conserve property as they would to save a life.

To carry out the specified functions and tasks of the fire service consistent with the accepted incident priorities, an order of operations has been established: RECEO-VS (Rescue, Exposure protection, Confinement, Extinguishment, Ventilation, and Salvage). The U.S. fire service has been using this ordered system for the better part of a century. The ventilation and salvage functions are hyphenated because those functions may be carried out in any order or to support any of the other tactical operations. Most, if not all, vocational fire training systems teach this order of operations. Ventilation is commonly used to support the rescue, confinement, and extinguishment operations when dealing with compartmentalized fires within structures.3

The above listed incident priorities and the established order of firefighting operations may be close to universally acceptable, but the human element is another vital component of firefighting. An individual must observe, process, and evaluate what is happening on the incident scene. The human factor can be a double-edged sword. It may serve as a platform on which to base sound decision making, and it could also lead to decisions that involve taking unwarranted risks, such as would be the case when the human heading the process had engaged in such behavior in the past without negative consequences, which led to reinforcing the “it can’t happen to me” mentality.

CONTRIBUTING FACTORS

Questions arise as to why there are so many vacant buildings and why fires occur in them when there is no one within them to commit careless actions that lead to fires. These issues are present almost anywhere-in urban, suburban, and rural settings; however, they are far more common in urban settings, where fire departments are staffed by career firefighters, who believe that they have a duty to act. Urban settings also have more vacant and derelict residential and commercial properties and may also have more indigent populations that are inclined to enter these buildings and try to keep warm.

The firefighters assigned to any area have a genuine call to duty and seem by most accounts willing to do their jobs, even when their own well-being is at stake. In most fire departments, the youngest and most energetic firefighters tend to migrate toward the busier firehouses, which are commonly in lower-income areas where there is more demand on fire department services. “In the same way that the most deprived (and fire-ridden) areas of the city tend to attract the most enthusiastic firemen, certain other areas become desirable due to other criteria of worker satisfaction …. but again, the society of firemen is such that pride of company is generally a more important determinant of firehouse selection than other factors.”4 The firefighters working these areas report to be happier because they are busier and are able to use their skills. These areas also have a higher incidence of building vacancy, the buildings in which firefighters are losing their lives.

In addition to the firefighters being attracted to the busy areas, they seem to be willing to take risks associated with the job. They receive strict training on the topics formerly discussed, but there are indications that they may be willing to take unmitigated risks to do the job to their satisfaction. Paid firefighters feel strongly that their job is to save lives and if they fail to do this they are not doing their job.5 This type of sentiment is easy to understand considering the firefighter culture. The firefighters’ view of vacant buildings is that no building is truly vacant until they have had a chance to search and find no one inside. At the time of the fire, a decision has to be made when the building appears to be vacant. Firefighters are not willing to make the wrong judgment call by deciding that the building is vacant, only to later discover someone, perhaps a vagrant, is inside. This illustrates the willingness of firefighters to put the safety of others before their own. Although this is a desirable characteristic, it leads to the cavalier attitude that not entering any building on fire is dereliction of duty.

Although firefighters are trained that saving property is a secondary priority and that property can always be replaced, it appears almost as if firefighters are unwilling to accept the circumstantial evidence that no viable life is at stake. They generally will be satisfied only if they have an opportunity to get inside and make sure that no one is there. (5) These tendencies are also some of the behaviors that give firefighters hero status among the community and make them good firefighters. ICs and fire department leaders must channel this good energy in the proper direction. Also, fire department leaders must keep tabs on vacant buildings in each company’s response district and have a good understanding of what the chances are that vagrants, teenagers, or other people might be inside the vacant buildings.

Firefighters are far more likely to follow the orders of an IC whom they believe has their best interests in mind. However, if they have any misgivings or doubt about the IC, they will more likely make decisions on their own or take actions they feel are justified. (5) They might even be willing to take additional risks if they believe they can rescue someone, even if it is against the IC’s directives. This issue of freelancing outside of the established incident command system (ICS) goes far beyond the problem of vacant buildings, but is especially poignant in this case.

A relatively recent factor in the increase of vacant properties has been the economic decline. Until recently, vacant properties were primarily an issue in urban areas. The recent crash of the housing market has led to an increase in the number of vacant single-family dwellings in suburban and rural areas because of foreclosures. This has brought what was once a big city problem to suburbia. In urban areas where homelessness also coincides with vacancy, there are more incidents of squatting in vacant buildings. The Worcester (MA) Cold Storage fire where six firefighters were lost is a prime example of fires in vacant buildings where there are reports of vagrants living inside. In this case, the vagrant occupants had left the building once the fire was discovered and did not wait for the fire department to let firefighters know that the building was vacant and unoccupied.

SOLUTIONS AND MITIGATIONS

There are no clear-cut answers to these problems and the contributing factors leading to firefighters operating inside of vacant structures on fire. However, addressing these topics and changing the culture of the fire service could go a long way in mitigating some of the problems. First, to address the issue of the vacant buildings, there are things that can be done to try to prevent fires and vagrant occupancy. In urban areas, codes and stronger laws regarding how vacant buildings are to be maintained should be enforced. Buildings not being maintained are effectively abandoned by the owner and should be demolished. This leads to additional issues such as funding for demolition, but ultimately the property owners need to be held accountable for these properties. Municipalities need to protect their employees by appropriating adequate resources for the management of vacant properties. Additionally, the fire service needs to take an active role in monitoring the vacant properties in their districts by keeping tabs on which buildings are vacant and which appear to have people occupying them and developing preincident plans for response to these addresses.

Note: Use locally available data for making decisions and developing policies and guidelines affecting response to vacant buildings. National averages and response numbers may not adequately illustrate microcosms that exist locally. This puts the onus on the fire department leadership to establish a risk vs. reward system that works for and is acceptable to the community.

Firefighter training has documented that firefighters are trained to understand that property conservation comes last on the incident priorities continuum, as in the National Fire Academy’s NIMS ICS for the Fire Service course. Departments where there is a high incidence of property vacancy need to have programs or policies and procedures that clearly define the boundaries of firefighter activities. The culture surrounding operating in vacant buildings needs to be clearly defined. This could be accomplished through a department’s own policies and guidelines or by adopting the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation 16 Life Safety Initiatives.

Along these same lines, ICs must understand the risks involved in sending firefighting forces into a vacant structure. These buildings are not being maintained at a level sufficient to ensure safety. Among issues that must be considered are the following: How long has the building been vacant? What toll has weather taken on the building? Has the building suffered prior partial collapse or previous fires? Is it merely a report of possible vagrancy inside, or is there hard evidence, such as personal belongings, of recent entry into the building?

The evidence used to determine occupancy should be discussed by the fire department prior to dispatch to a vacant building. If the department has written guidelines and evidence exists that there is a reasonable expectation that a viable victim is in the building, then the normal “Go/No-Go” rules apply. If all stakeholders, the property owner, the municipality, the fire department leadership, and the rank-and-file firefighters have formed a common operating picture, it may be more unlikely that firefighters will take unwarranted risks.

Firefighters, especially those promoting to any rank higher than firefighter, need to receive risk management training. Just knowing that property is the last priority does not constitute a safe environment because firefighters have stated that they want to make sure there is no one inside. They must be trained to observe evidence, or lack thereof, of occupancy to support the offensive operation. There are several risk management models and techniques available, many of which other municipal agencies are employing in other parts of municipal government. Many fire departments operate under the Risk Retention Model, whereby all risk is retained by members operating at the scene and mitigated as seen fit on scene. Balanced Risk Analysis seeks to offset risks with tolerable risks that are tactically acceptable.

The first part of understanding any risk management model is that firefighters and ICs must understand the possible losses at stake. The Risk Retention Model, where all risks are assessed and mitigated once on scene, has historically been employed by the fire service. This is more of a reactive approach to reducing risk. A balanced approach to risk management is key to gaining total buy-in by all parties involved.6 Under the Balanced Risk Model, risks are assessed prior to response and mitigation strategies and guidelines are established. This reduces the number of risks and factors that must be decided once on scene. (6) If you ignore the risks, they will remain, and you will have to deal with the losses when they come. (6)

ICs must be trained on a universal risk management process. Knowing that firefighters are placed at an undue risk when fighting fires in vacant buildings is not enough. In some instances, firefighters entering the building may be warranted because increasing the amount of tolerable risk is needed to achieve the desired benefit of life safety. Vacant buildings exist in all jurisdictions, but what are the historical civilian life losses in these buildings, and how do they compare against firefighter life losses over the same period?

In addition to the risk reduction techniques mentioned already, fire prevention is the best solution for reducing civilian and firefighter casualties. The issue with fire prevention is that the effectiveness of such a program may not always be immediately measurable. The numbers of lives saved are usually visible only in statistical analysis, which takes time to compile and determine. Every fire prevented also reduces the potential for property loss. “It is always better, of course, to prevent a fire than face a hostile force that always causes extensive property damage before successful extinguishment. Further, it is not unusual for victims of fires to be dead before anyone calls the fire department.”7 This insight leads into another issue: if there is evidence of occupancy, are the occupants alive? Firefighters must understand the point at which their efforts would be spent without the possibility of rescuing a live patient. This question is best answered following the department’s already established guidelines.

•••

Firefighters are needlessly dying fighting fires in vacant buildings in areas where the likelihood of making a rescue needs to be studied and planned beforehand. These issues are compounded by firefighters’ willingness to operate outside of the established ICS. City officials need to establish programs to control the number and condition of vacant buildings to which firefighters may have to respond. The fire service and its leadership must fully understand and implement universally accepted risk management programs. The synergistic effect of any of these suggested solutions could help to reduce the numbers of firefighters who may be killed operating in these buildings.

STEVE IMBARLINA, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is a full-time instructor with the Allegheny County (PA) Emergency Services Department/Fire Academy Division. He is also an assistant chief of the Unity Fire Department, Plum Borough, Pennsylvania. He is completing requirements for an undergraduate degree in disaster and emergency management from American Military University. He chairs the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy’s Entry Level Firefighter Training Curriculum committee.

References

1. Jane Erickson, “Applied Risk Management,” APT Bulletin, 21:3/4; 1989,13.

2. Anthony Avillo, “Firefighter Casualties: When ‘Old-School Firefighting’ Doesn’t Work.”Fire Engineering, 163:33 (March 2010):105.

3. Lloyd Laymen, Fundamentals of Fire Fighting Tactics. (Magruder Publishing Co., 1940).

4. John Seley, “A Comparison of Technical and Ethnographic Approaches in the Evaluation and Planning of Professional Fire Services: Tinkering with Success,” Economic Geography, 55:1; 1979, 43.

5. David Fender, “Controlling Risk Taking Among Firefighters,” Professional Safety, 48: 7;2003,16.

6. John Wiggins,” Balanced Risk Analysis,” JAE, 33:4; 1980,

7. Michael Forster,” Municipal Risk Management Tips,” Public Management, 87:10; 2005, 34.

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