FIGHTING FIRES IN VACANT OCCUPANCIES

When I was a young fire-fighter, I tried to put all of the aspects of firefighting into neat little packages: “If this, then this!” Well, as I soon found out, our profession isn’t always black and white and easily tucked into nice little nooks and crannies. Buildings, builders, architects, and occupancy types are different, and what worked at a fire in a two-story wood-frame dwelling yesterday didn’t work at a textile mill fire the week before.

Not only is firefighting not an exact science, but we can’t even agree on what we call “stuff”! As an example, “dinky” in my department is the same thing as a “Dutchtown” in Detroit or a “short ladder” in Atlanta. We use and misuse terms in firefighting as often as the donut eaters stop at Dunkin’ Donuts. So where am I going with this? This month’s question addresses risk analysis and fighting fires in unoccupied or vacant buildings. Before presenting our answers, let’s look at a few definitions to make sure we are all singing off the same song sheet.

To me, an unoccupied building is one with contents but no humans inside at the time of the fire. A closed convenience store in a strip mall at 5 a.m. would be an example of an unoccupied building. So would a house whose occupants are away on vacation. A vacant building is one with no (or only a few worthless) contents inside. An abandoned warehouse, factory, or house would be an example of a vacant building.

In Toledo, we have a procedure for fighting a fire in a known vacant building deemed to be structurally unsound. Our city building department puts these buildings on a demolition list. Once a building is placed on this list, we are notified and send an inspector to view the property. If we concur, we send a registered letter to the property owner informing him that we will not conduct interior firefighting in this property except for a “known rescue” (procedure states “unless we arrive and see or hear a victim inside”). Our Law Department has approved this policy. The policy includes an appeals process for the property owner (it has yet to be used).

We call these buildings “Code Red” buildings. The address is flagged in our computer-aided dispatch system. If that address comes up for a structure fire call, units are notified during the dispatch that this building is “Code Red.” Only exterior operations will be conducted once we are on-scene. Each Code Red building is placarded on at least two sides with a fluorescent sign to inform the crews should the fire call be turned in without a specific address.


“Code Red” structure. (Photo by John “Skip” Coleman.)

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As far as all other occupancies are concerned—vacant (structurally sound) with worth, unoccupied, and the like—we train our officers to the National Fire Academy’s risk policy: “We will take great risk to save life, we will take some risk to save property, and we will take no risk to save property already lost to fire.” Train your officers to make good risk-benefit judgments.

—John “Skip” Coleman is deputy chief of fire prevention for the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Question: Of the 20 to 30 firefighters killed annually inside burning structures, the vast majority died in structures where no life hazard was present at ignition of the fire, let alone on the arrival of the first-in units. Does your department have a policy that amends strategy when you encounter a fire in an unoccupied building?

Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: Our department’s SOP regarding fire attack in an unoccupied building is a fairly simple one. Actually, we borrowed it from Phoenix, Arizona:

  • We will risk our lives a lot, in a highly calculated and controlled manner, to protect a savable human life.
  • We will risk our lives a little, in a highly calculated and controlled manner, to protect savable property.
  • We will not risk our lives at all to protect lives or property that are already lost.

It’s even posted on big signs above the doors that lead to and from the apparatus room in all of our fire stations. Our department is pretty aggressive with our fire attack but in a manner that is calculated and met with preparation. Our troops know when to go in, when to stay out, and when to back out and regroup. They know when we have a “loser” and when we can win. At the same time, we bring enough people and water to the fire. Every one-alarm response to a reported structure fire is responded to with the following: three engines (may be quints; third engine serves as the rapid intervention team), one tower ladder, one ambulance with two firefighter/paramedics, and one battalion chief. Working fires get a duty chief. Each alarm above this, for the most part, is met with the same response. Our captains and battalion chiefs do a great job with their decisions, especially when it comes to going with an offensive or defensive attack. So far, we’ve been pretty successful.

Josh Thompson, battalion chief, Avon (IN) Fire Department

Response: Our overall mission is to protect life, property, and the environment. We must realize that protection of life is not reserved just for those we serve but also includes us. In the performance of our duty, we must put our safety first.

An “unoccupied” building could mean many things: a vacant and condemned building, a closed business, a structure under construction, or a house whose occupants are absent. Our department has no specific policy regarding “unoccupied” building fires, but I have a philosophy as the incident commander (IC) on such incidents. Most of us have heard it before and use it every day, but do we use it effectively? Evaluation of the risk vs. reward. What risk should we take for what reward? Our job is risky. At times, we thrive and contribute to the risk. We cannot allow this type of mentality to continue to injure and kill us. On the other hand, we shouldn’t let every “unoccupied” building burn down because it is too risky.

Condemned buildings and structures under construction with no life hazard should be defensive from the start. For most other “unoccupied” commercial buildings, effective preplanning should assist in our decision making. Preplanning can give much information, including quick access, protection systems, construction hazards, and hazardous materials. I don’t know of too many unsprinklered buildings built with the thought of “what if this caught fire?” Therefore, if we cannot safely provide an aggressive interior attack on our arrival, we must think, “If they cared about its burning down, they would’ve put a sprinkler system in it.”

I must also mention fast-food restaurants. They sprout up here and there, are built of lightweight construction, have heavy HVAC systems on the roof, and have virtually no fire protection systems. The reward here is very little. The restaurants are insured, and the owners will rebuild.

“Unoccupied” residences (single-family dwellings) are not much different. We must constantly evaluate the risk vs. reward. I have a personal philosophy here: If my house were to catch fire, I would rebuild it, but I would never be able to replace many of the personal effects contained within it. If a relatively safe interior attack can be made, we should do so to protect invaluable and irreplaceable personal property. We should never put ourselves in a position where the risk severely outweighs the reward, but we cannot allow the risk to prevent us from doing our job. We can begin the process of limiting such risks before the call comes in by constantly training on risk assessment; preplanning; and regularly reviewing our communication, accountability, incident command, and Mayday standard operating procedures (SOPs). When we do encounter such a call, we will be better prepared to assess the risk vs. reward, recognize losers, communicate dangers, and deal with emergency situations.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: Currently, our department does not have a written policy regarding fire operations in vacant buildings. We have trained, and continue to train, on the dangers faced in vacant buildings. All of our members, especially ICs, must perform a risk-benefit analysis before engaging in firefighting operations in vacant buildings. If a life can be saved without extreme risk to firefighters, then the effort is made. An attempt will be made to save buildings that may be renewed when the risk to firefighters is moderate. To risk the lives of firefighters when no lives are at stake in a building that will be razed is not a good risk vs. benefit.

A neighboring fire department in a larger city had a problem with fires in vacant buildings; the fires frequently were caused by homeless people seeking shelter. A couple of the fires resulted in the deaths of firefighters. Learning from those incidents, that fire department initiated an inspection program to identify vacant buildings. Property owners were directed to secure the buildings and make them reasonably safe (e.g., make the structure basically sound, cover holes in the floors, secure shafts and light wells, and install railings where required). Firefighters made preincident surveys of the buildings and created a dangerous building list and warning system.

We will work to reinforce our training with a policy. We can also learn from other departments by identifying vacant and dangerous buildings. Firefighters can invest time in their safety by conducting preincident surveys. The fire department’s prevention division can work with property owners, city and county building officials, and law enforcement to make vacant buildings safer and reduce the number of illegal occupants.

Katherine T. Ridenhour, captain, Aurora (CO) Fire Department

Response: We have policies specific to risk-benefit analysis instead of firefighting procedures in unoccupied structures. We emphasize good decision-making models and stress the importance of applying proper strategy and tactics to each type of fire situation. Skilled fireground judgments are based on risk-benefit analyses that define when it is reasonable to place firefighters at risk to save savable lives and property.

Most officers understand the concept of risk-benefit analysis but may not be able to define it specifically or be trained in field application. Experienced officers base all decisions on the risk assessment developed during size-up. The relationship between building construction, fire involvement, and fire behavior must be understood in regard to survivability of people and the structure. Risk/benefit analysis encompasses all that and more, but there is a model that outlines risk assessment and helps us better define the gray areas of decision making on the fireground.

Let me review the concept of Value/ Time/Size (V/T/S) used as a risk/benefit analysis tool developed by Stewart Rose, a retired battalion chief from Seattle.

Value. Is there value to putting firefighters inside the building? Yes or no? Value is based primarily on savable lives and savable property but never jeopardizes firefighter lives for unoccupied structures. There is no value in situations where occupants cannot survive or when the building will be torn down after extinguishment.

Time. Based on how long the fire has been impacting the structural members in a particular type of construction. Construction materials and types have definite time limits associated with their ability to withstand the impact of fire. Officers must ascertain the extent of fire during size-up to determine the safe time for interior firefighting tactics.

Size. The amount of water it will take to put out the fire. Two fire flow formulas recognized by the fire service are the Iowa formula (L 2 W 2 H divided by 100) and the National Fire Academy formula (L 2 W divided by 3, multiplied by percentage of the structure involved), which equal the necessary gallons per minute (gpm) needed to put out the fire. Figuring the size of fire in terms of gpm helps us determine the size of lines, necessary water supply, method of attack, required number of resources, and the strategy and tactics for extinguishment.

All departments should be teaching risk-benefit models to help officers and firefighters decide when to send in their crews and especially when to pull them out. Fires in unoccupied structures need the same assessment of fire behavior, building construction, size-up, and risk analysis as any other fire. However, the big difference is how the officer processes the information and answers the Value/Time/Size questions.

One last comment on risk-benefit analysis: Besides being knowledgeable and skillful in identifying life-threatening situations, I also believe firefighters need to trust their intuition. If something doesn’t seem right or “feels” wrong, trust that instinct. Listening to that inner voice, that gut feeling, that something isn’t right with this picture could save your life or that of one of your crew members.

Bobby Halton, deputy chief, Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department

Response: Our department does not currently have a policy or deployment procedure specific to abandoned buildings. We use the standard NFPA 1500 risk assessment tool of risk a lot, risk a little, and risk nothing. Albuquerque company officers have the option as first due of making the most important fireground decision of all: in or out. Subsequent arriving command team members can review the initial decision within the initial action plan and change it if necessary.

Our officers are all very competent when it comes to incident scene size-up and risk assessment. Our problems arise in that we are very well equipped and staffed, which sometimes makes us overly aggressive. One of our Denver friends once told us that the closer he gets to his pension the better the decisions he makes. Albuquerque Fire Chief Robert Ortega thought it might be good to put a 50-year-old firefighter on every engine company.

The other advantage we have is that our mayor, Martin Chavez, is a no-nonsense guy when it comes to nuisance buildings. He developed the safe city strike team, which constantly inspects and enforces our codes to keep our commercial buildings in compliance with our building fire and safety codes. The team has firefighters, lawyers, police officers, and money. It is very aggressive and well trained and supported from the very top down.

In 2003, more than 50 buildings were demolished because the owners failed to make necessary improvements or made no efforts at all. A recent two-alarm fire is a good example. A notorious two-story apartment complex flophouse that had been condemned spontaneously combusted at 3 a.m. two weeks ago. The property was boarded up, and the lien holders were instructed to keep all persons out of this unsafe structure.

On arrival, our first due decided on a marginal attack to ensure no persons were threatened and then withdrawing and going defensive. We have also determined that the smartest people are the street people, and we don’t find very many of them in these buildings when we get there.

We went defensive and stopped the fire but not before it did considerable damage to the building. Our mayor and the team were on-site to assess the building. They contacted the lien holders and made arrangements to demolish the building at a cost far below that of what private contractors would charge. By 4 o’clock the next day, the building and a major fire, crime, and neighborhood problem for the city of Albuquerque were gone.

The best policy for abandoned buildings comes from good fire and political leadership. However, I am very interested in adopting a good response policy for our department and look forward to reading some suggestions here.

Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: We do not use a specific policy for strategic decisions based on whether or not a building is occupied or not. Our strategic decision-making process is based on three sets of considerations: the fireground factors, the tactical priorities (firefighter safety, life safety, fire control, and property conservation), and the risk management profile identified in NFPA 1500. Based on the results of these considerations, the IC selects the strategy.

The fact that a building is vacant or occupied plays heavily during the assessment of the three considerations. If the only life safety hazard in a structural fire is the firefighters we are going to deploy to the interior and the associated risk is high, we will stay outside in a defensive strategy. Likewise, if the associated risk for a continued offensive strategy is too high after we have completed a primary search, we will switch to a defensive strategy in which all members will be removed from the immediate hazard zone to safer locations.


Another way to phrase the question is to ask if we have a responsibility to protect vacant property using an offensive strategy. If the question is posed this way, I think we have this responsibility, but the attack needs to be balanced against the risks.

The second bullet point in the risk management profile in NFPA 1500 talks about our responsibility to protect property within a structured plan. Think of it as a scale: If our safety systems outweigh the hazards, then we should be in an offensive strategy. If the hazards outweigh our safety systems, then we need to abandon the offensive strategy and change to the safer operation of a defensive strategy.

It is much easier to develop a policy that limits our responsibility to protect vacant property than to ask an IC to assess a set of three considerations and base the strategic decision on that assessment. But, I would contend that in many cases the easiest solution is not always the best solution.

Bob Oliphant, lieutenant, Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety

Response: A small number of buildings within our jurisdiction are designated as “No Entry” buildings, meaning that we will not send personnel inside if there is a fire. These structures are typically abandoned industrial buildings, but they could be any kind of vacant structure. They have included paper mills, plating companies, cold storage warehouses, manufacturing companies, and burned out buildings.

They are designated No Entry because conditions inside present an extreme risk to firefighters. Floor openings for machinery, structural integrity, the presence of hazardous materials, or conditions that facilitate rapid fire spread are some of the criteria for designating a building as No Entry. Building inspectors, fire marshals, and command officers apply the designation. In short, the risk involved to save these buildings is too great. Most of them have been or eventually will be demolished.

Apart from the No Entry designation, there is no department policy specifying a strategy for fires in unoccupied structures. It is up to the IC to decide which strategy to apply. When firefighters die while fighting fires in unoccupied buildings, one must always ask, Was it worth the risk? My opinion is that unoccupied buildings do not merit the same risks as buildings in which people are normally present. I believe that most of my peers would agree.

Michael Allora, lieutenant, Clifton (NJ) Fire Department

Response: Our department does not have a policy that specifically addresses unoccupied structures. Perhaps this would be a good place to start. However, I feel that establishing a policy is just one aspect of the solution. Risk management and fireground decision making need to be addressed as well. A policy on the books would be only as effective as the person making the decisions at the incident. Firefighters, company officers, and chief officers must be trained to recognize the hazards of the modern fire environment. After the December 2003 Roundtable question, I asked several firefighters what conditions would prohibit them from entering the building on arrival. The answers were not easily found. Most said they had never really thought about it beforehand. Of course, the fully involved fire scenario was presented; but minus that scenario, are we reading the building properly prior to entering? Are we paying attention to the cues that are telling us this incident is a loser? In the December 2003 issue, Steve Kreis wrote in “Rapid Intervention Isn’t Rapid”: “We must be smarter about which firefights we can win and which are losers. Losers really aren’t losers; they are simply the standard outcome of a fire that progressed past our ability to control it with the resources we can effectively bring to the incident.” In my opinion, one of the first things we should be asking ourselves on arrival at an incident is, Do we belong in this building?

Firefighter safety must be paramount throughout the organization. It must begin and end with the details. Every NIOSH report seems to address an incident in which many small things were compounded to create a tragedy—small things that, if they had been addressed promptly, may have made the difference between the firefighter’s going home safely and not going home at all. We all know that this is a dangerous business, and we have all accepted that as part of our job. However, we must be courageous enough to adapt to the changes taking place around us.

Building construction, fire loading, products of combustion, reduced staffing, flashover, backdraft, and collapse potential are just some of the issues that have made the modern fire environment less tolerant of the firefighter. It is incumbent on us to provide the proper training, establish the proper mindset, and continue to be critical of ourselves to save lives. How many of us have a seat-belt policy on the books? How many of us are wearing the seat belts? I have accepted the challenge set forth by Dr. Burton Clark to have 200 percent efficiency with regard to seat belts. I am challenging you to do the same.

Keith D. Smith, chief, Westfield Wash-ington Township (IN) Fire Department

Response: Our department has a policy for unoccupied or vacant structures. Although not yet formalized into a written SOP, the risk assessment on vacant or unoccupied buildings is a company officer and/or battalion chief decision. These officers yield to the risk-to-benefit practice of limited resource exposure and primarily defensive positioning unless new or significant information presents itself. They understand, as does the firefighter, that it is a practical decision to prevent injury and protect resources when no benefit is to be gained.

The policy is discussed and reinforced in staff and operational meetings so firefighters can recognize that there are times when aggressiveness has no value. Firefighters always raise the issue that these vacant building fires make good places to practice and should be looked at more as training opportunities. Our argument to that is that they present unknown dangers. For example, we don’t know why they are unoccupied or vacant: Is there structural damage that could cause collapse? Are there open shafts or stairs missing? Is there exposed wiring? Are there cut-off hallways or exits? Aggressive interior attack may prove very foolish (dangerous). We are trained to make rational decisions. With no life hazard, attack strategy must be flexible for the circumstances. Protection of exposures might be the first priority.

Our next step is to produce a written SOP. Our first step was to discuss with our operational officers the strategy we should develop in cases of unoccupied or abandoned structures. They understand the reasons for the strategy and the diversification of tactics in such incidents.

Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: We do not have a specific policy concerning fire operations in “unoccupied” buildings, except for those being fumigated with tents over them. Of course, we operate on the premise that all buildings are potentially occupied until a thorough primary and secondary search indicate otherwise. The only recommended operating guideline we use that would be related to this issue states that when the strategy is to attack the fire offensively (interior), all units operating on-scene are to be made aware of this—likewise, if the decision is made to attack defensively (exterior).

Cedar Hammock, which has seen a fair amount of fire activity over the years, depends on its officers, specifically the battalion chiefs, to properly size up a fire scene and determine the overall best strategy based on their education (college educated) and experience (25 years each) and the conditions presented on arrival such as the type/age/condition/occupancy of the building, the color/volume/characteristics of the smoke and flames, and so on. Cedar Hammock’s chief feels that on-scene decision making is better than having a policy that dictates actions at a building “believed” to be unoccupied.

A.M. Brooks, lieutenant, Columbus (OH) Division of Fire

Response: We do not have an SOP to deal with “unoccupied” structures, but we generate bulletins and memos that deal with specific structures known to be hazardous. For instance, if an “unoccupied” structure were known to be an abandoned illegal chemist lab, the bulletin would outline a defensive attack, a “no-entry” order, or whatever special instructions need to be followed.

The benefit of this type of policy is that all division members are required to read all division bulletins and initial them on the back, ensuring that all members receive the information. Also, this information is passed to the oncoming crews during a formal roll call.

If a department adopts a no-entry rule for all “unoccupied” structures, it would be failing to protect the life of the citizens we are sworn to protect. How many “unoccupied” structures have in fact been occupied? Their occupants would have sustained serious injury or death had the structures not been searched.

Officers need to have common sense when dealing with “unoccupied” structures and should not overcommit their crews, but a primary search needs to be completed. The only structures that would be exempted from the primary search requirement would be those with real hazards that are known to fire department personnel.

David B. Cheshire, captain, Manteno Community (IL) Fire Protection District

Response: Our fire district does not have any written SOGs that change tactical strategies on vacant buildings. There is, and should be, an unwritten rule to follow when a structure is under attack by fire. Risk analysis must come into play here.

The first-arriving officer should determine this through a good size-up. The size-up begins by knowing what is in your backyard long before the call comes in. Once it is determined that the risk outweighs the benefits, you must proceed with caution. We must ask, What are we saving, and at what price?

The goal of all firefighters from chiefs down to the rookie is quite simple: our own personal safety and the safety of our brothers and sisters. We didn’t cause this problem; we were asked to mitigate it to the best of our abilities.

Chris Murtha, firefighter, Wilmington (DE) Fire Department

Response: Our department has a written SOP for fires involving vacant buildings. It states that if there is extensive fire or heavy smoke showing on the arrival of the apparatus, the primary concern will be exposure protection. A defensive attack is to be mounted using heavy appliances operated from the exterior of the building instead of subjecting firefighters to the excessive dangers that may be presented by an interior attack.

However, the procedure also allows some leeway for the IC to initiate an aggressive interior attack based on size-up, tactical considerations, condition of the building, or the presence of definite life-threatening emergencies. But, the procedure emphasizes that such a situation in a vacant building should be the exception to the rule, not the normal course of action. The benefits of an interior attack must outweigh the risks and possible consequences of entering a vacant building to extinguish a fire.

Jim Mason, firefighter, Chicago (IL) Fire Department

Response: Not all vacant buildings are alike. A size-up of the building and fire conditions on arrival should dictate what interior operations will be performed. We can break down a basic size-up into construction, occupancy, and fire conditions on arrival to determine what can and should be done. On the construction question, the positives for interior operations are the following: Is the building a stable type of construction (not lightweight)? Was the building recently occupied, and is there a reasonable amount of compartmentation inside (as in a residence)? Negatives would be a building in the early to mid stages of construction, one that has had multiple fires in it, one that is in obvious disrepair, and one that is of lightweight construction.

The occupancy is also a primary concern. Is the building a 21/2-story residence of ordinary construction that has only lost the windows to the neighborhood scavengers, or is it a large industrial storage warehouse within which any department would have trouble fighting a significant fire, even with all the installed systems operating properly? Many times the answer to this question should be enough to stop the interior attack, regardless of the construction and fire conditions, because the staffing of the local fire department response has been politically reduced below a safe level for this occupancy.

The final size-up question is, What are the fire conditions on arrival? Is the fire in a second-floor rear bedroom? We find this out because it is showing out of one of those empty window frames. Or, on our arrival, is fire coming out of every window on both floors of this building? If it is fully involved, then protecting the exposures is of primary importance because anyone inside is very likely past saving and collapse is imminent. Adding up the answers to these questions will give a good idea of what we can do inside based on experience; however, it is not an exact science.

If we arrive and someone says people are inside, listen to them, but consider the tremendous risks inherent in searching a vacant building before committing firefighters. A vent-enter-search operation from a ladder may be the best way to search a single, upper-floor room if it is a residential occupancy and you feel you are getting a solid location of a vagrant inside. Any search should be limited to a location pointed out by the witness and governed by safety issues pertaining to the conditions and the building.

The problem with immediately going to a defensive operation in a vacant building fire is that the fire cannot be completely extinguished. That is why we overhaul. As long as it is safe to do so, we need to go in to finish it off. If we don’t go inside after the initial knockdown from outside, we will be going back to the rekindle every half hour for the next three days or more. Either that or we will need to get the heavy equipment to the scene to pull the building down so we can sprinkle the rubble. This would happen a few thousand times each year in Chicago. When we take a defensive position to knock down the fire before entering later, we need to ensure that the water we have been pouring inside comes out before sending in firefighters.

Lance C. Peeples, instructor, St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy

Response: Operating at fires in abandoned buildings is one of the most dangerous duties firefighters perform. A distinction should be made between buildings that are abandoned and those that are vacant or temporarily unoccupied. Abandoned buildings are often structurally unsound because of a lack of maintenance, vandalism, or previous fires. The mere fact that a building has been abandoned is no guarantee that the building is vacant. Frequently, homeless people take up residence in these buildings. Firefighters should be alert for electric lines strung from adjacent buildings or even “wired” into the electric service in the street. Sometimes a garden hose from a sympathetic neighbor will be run into an abandoned building to provide drinking water. It is not uncommon to find children playing in these hazardous buildings.

Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure that a building is vacant is to conduct primary, secondary, and even tertiary searches. This is not to say that firefighters should undertake the same degree of risk in conducting search operations in abandoned buildings as they would in searching a private dwelling at 2 a.m. with a report that “My little girl is trapped in that room!” Experience and training will suggest the risk members should be subjected to when operating at abandoned buildings. The following list provides some general guidelines:

  • Always operate with extreme caution at fires in abandoned buildings.
  • Carefully consider structural stability before commencing an interior attack. Company officers should be aggressive in preplanning these buildings. The fire department should consider some type of marking system for identifying the relative degree of risk presented by a given building. However, do not rely on these marking systems, as conditions may have worsened since the last inspection.
  • Searches should not place members in undue danger. The building is “probably” vacant. Search only after a hoseline is in operation on the fire. Do not conduct vent, enter, and search operations above the fire unless there is some strong indication of a life hazard.
  • If moderate or heavy fire is present, move quickly to an exterior attack. Knock down the fire from the exterior. Then, carefully evaluate structural and other safety factors before initiating searches.
  • Slow down and think! Weigh the risk vs. benefit of any given action.
  • The primary life hazard at abandoned building fires is that of firefighters! Act accordingly.

Mike Bucy, chief, Union Fire-Rescue, Wheeler, Indiana

Response: This question is a “New Millennium” hot topic. Today’s fire service’s politically correct answer is yes. However, I don’t think the actual fireground tactics have changed. I know Phoenix is “leading the way” in changing attitudes, but I have a feeling they are still doing interior attacks as aggressively as before the Brett Tarver tragedy. As a chief, I am constantly confronted with this issue. Let’s face it: Most fire departments are small, and firefighters from those small departments rarely perform that heroic rescue. Our job is to minimize fire damage—after all, that is what the taxpayers expect and deserve.

Most fire professionals miss the point in that the reasons firefighters are dying in structure fires are poor size-up (initial and ongoing) and tactics. These are the only two reasons. I recently watched a large city department kill civilians with poor tactics and a smaller city department burn down a business because of what it termed were poor hydrants/water supply. The water supply was fine—the water supply tactics were incomprehensible. If either department had put firefighters in either building described, more than likely those firefighters would have been seriously injured or killed. Most departments mop up from these types of fires patting each other on the back instead of realizing they were on the verge of a disaster.

The only policy that truly needs to be addressed is training—training for scene commanders in dealing with size-up and general tactics and training for fire crews to recognize hazards and situations the scene commanders do not recognize. I think the “brave” fire service owes it to its citizens to safely (relative to our jobs) save as much property as possible. We also owe it to our firefighters to train them in strategy and tactics a lot more than we do. A well-involved structure should not be entered: This should be a commonsense approach after size-up and tactical considerations, not a “New Millennium” policy change.

Tim Bogisch, chief, McQueeney (TX) Volunteer Fire Department

Response: As the chief of a small volunteer fire department covering a mostly suburban/rural district, one of my highest priorities is the safety of our firefighters. Given an average response time of seven to eight minutes and as long as 12 to 14 minutes to the most distant parts of our district, we are faced with one of two scenarios on arrival—an incipient fire or a well-advanced fire. We teach our firefighters to recognize the fact that in most cases any victims still inside on our arrival at a well-advanced fire are not savable. Rather than changing our strategy when we determine a building is unoccupied, we fight all well-involved structure fires as if the structures are unoccupied until we determine that savable victims are inside, at which time we adjust our strategy to include the rescue component.

Troy Cool, lieutenant, Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Department

Response: Our department does not have a written policy dealing specifically with vacant or unoccupied buildings. There are a significant number of these structures within the city, and fires in these buildings are not uncommon. As a general rule, these “unoccupied” buildings should be treated as any other fire to which we respond: Size up the building and conditions, and perform a risk-benefit assessment. If building or fire conditions warrant a defensive strategy, then that would be most appropriate for the safety of our members. However, to have a blanket policy that says the fire department shall not enter a so-called vacant or unoccupied building is potentially putting lives at risk. How can you be sure a building is unoccupied until it has been searched unless the occupant is positive everyone has been removed prior to the arrival of the fire department?

Even in cases where the building has been vacant for an extended period of time, the fire had to start somehow. Our fire companies have witnessed children playing in these vacant buildings on numerous occasions. Homeless vagrants often find shelter in these buildings, especially during inclement weather. While training in these buildings, we have discovered entire families occupying these “unoccupied” buildings. These people, and anyone else who may become trapped inside a burning building, deserve our best effort just as would any other resident or visitor. The only way to ensure a building is truly unoccupied is through an aggressive interior search, as long as conditions allow.

Danny Kistner, battalion chief, Garland (TX) Fire Department

Response: Strategy is amended when we encounter a fire in an unoccupied building, as it should be. If there is no life safety issue, we should not be risking the lives of our firefighters. I am not advocating a carte blanche defensive strategy on every building found to be unoccupied, but I do advocate a cautious approach when there is little to be gained.

If a fire is clearly in the incipient stage, and I mean clearly in the incipient stage without stretching the truth to justify macho showmanship, I think we would be justified in initiating an aggressive interior attack, provided we are familiar with the structure and its peculiar construction features.

In situations where fire has progressed beyond the incipient stage, several variables must be addressed when evaluating a strategy:

  • What is the risk/benefit of an aggressive fire attack?
  • Do we have enough personnel on-scene to satisfy two in/two out?
  • What are the condition and color of the smoke?
  • What will conditions be like in the next minute? Two minutes? Five minutes?
  • Is this a building with which we are familiar?

If the response to any of these questions causes us to hesitate, we should not enter, and we should assume a defensive posture.

Officers and firefighters who may find themselves as first-due incident commanders within our department receive redundant training on this issue through various classes presented each year, such as strategy and tactics and rapid intervention training.

Unoccupied buildings do not automatically mean defensive strategies, but they should signal the prudent fire officer to slow down and take a closer look at the situation so as not to needlessly risk firefighters’ lives.

Steven Gillespie, captain, Pembroke Pines (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: We do not currently have a policy regarding fireground operations for occupied vs. unoccupied structures. SOGs are under development. Until the SOGs are in place, the department leaves the decision to operate on these incidents to the discretion of the first-arriving company officer. Before discussing fighting fire in an unoccupied structure, the first question to ask is, Do we really know that the structure is unoccupied? Having bystanders, law enforcement personnel, or residents on-scene inform you that no one is inside is not always reliable. These reporting parties may be able to account for all the occupants inside the structure when the fire was discovered; however, they cannot account for a Good Samaritan who may have entered the structure from a location not visible from their vantage point.

For our purposes, we will consider the structure to be truly unoccupied. If interior operations are initiated by first-arriving units, fine; the scene and conditions present must dictate how we operate on the fireground. The first-arriving officer has to consider many things prior to committing to any tactic. In this scenario, the company officer must take into account visible fire conditions, structural stability, contents of and use of the structure, exposures, water supply, available personnel, training, and the crews’ experience, to name just a few. If the first-arriving officer evaluates the situation at hand and determines that an interior operation is appropriate, the next-arriving officer or first-arriving chief officer after assuming command must reevaluate the scene and determine whether to continue with interior operations or adjust the tactical plan to a defensive mode of operation. This decision has to come from visible conditions (amount of smoke, fire, structural stability etc.), communication with companies operating on the inside, training, and experience. As with any incident to which firefighters respond, safety has to be our number-one priority.

However, we cannot blindly commit to a defensive mode just because no one is inside the building. Sometimes an interior attack is warranted and justified. Stopping the spread of fire and minimizing damage are of great concern to residents watching their life and memories go up in smoke. If the structure is a business, it helps facilitate repairs and reopening more quickly; this could be vital to the community’s economic survival. If a structure is fully involved and fire is venting from every opening, the decision is easy; however, that is usually the exception—not the rule. It is not always easy to decide whether to operate in an unoccupied structure that is involved in fire. In a short time the company officer needs to determine whether committing members inside this hostile environment would cause more harm than good. The members must be watching for any change that could affect their safety.

Mark Jenkins, chief, Westmoreland (TN) Volunteer Fire Department

Response: We do not have any SOPs relative to entering abandoned structures. We usually treat them as if we are unsure of whether there are occupants until we can do a search.

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