Historic Structures Pose Dangers for Firefighters



In many cities and towns, substandard structures, or those not up to code, stand alongside the newer, more code-compliant structures. Some cities, especially the older ones along the eastern seaboard, make these structures a part of their identity. The problem arises when structures woefully deficient in structural stability are classified as historic and little or no work is done to bring the structure up to minimal code. Now you have a structure that is protected by law and generally cannot be condemned without substantial legal effort. Firefighters are then forced to deal with fires in structures that became obsolete long ago.


According to the National Park Service, of the almost 72,000 listings on the National Register, some 77 percent are structures.1 The exact number of those that fail to meet minimum code is not known, but, based on my survey of historic structures in Charleston, South Carolina, and Boston, Massachusetts, it is safe to assume that it equals 50 percent. This does not include structures local municipalities list as historic. If you calculate these, the actual number of historic structures could easily top one-half million. This conservative estimate indicates that it is wholly possible that every firefighter in America will face a vacant historic structure that might not be code compliant.

(1) This house is considered historic despite its inherent structural flaws. (Photos by Abigail S. Lowry.)


(2) This historic structure is under renovation.


According to the United States Fire Administration, during the period of 1994-2000, 11 firefighters died in vacant structures.2 It is not known how many, if any, were designated as historic sites, but as the country ages, so do its buildings. Consequently, firefighters will be called to respond more often to fires in vacant historic structures.


The problems historic structures pose for firefighters closely parallel those presented by other types of vacant structures with the following two exceptions:

  • The historic vacant structure will not be torn down, thus eliminating the problem.
  • If renovations occur, they most likely will be carried out with exemptions from building codes to protect the structure’s historic value.

There may be other differences, but these two present the most significant problems for firefighters.


The older a structure, the farther away it is from recent code developments. Age matters in structures. The quality of the structural material will weaken over time, providing less time for firefighters to engage in an interior attack. Materials, such as the mortar, might weaken or fail more quickly when subjected to high heat. Foundations shift, sink, and otherwise compromise structural stability, a concern for any incident commander.


All firefighters are now aware of the truss construction nightmare. Firefighters have perished as a result of the poor quality of many lightweight wooden truss members. Danger also lurks in the historic vacant structure where wooden members are deteriorating. Only a handful of cities had codes in the 19th century that specified how a structure was to be built; consequently, many methods were used that today would frighten the most passive engineer. Figure 4.9 on page 159 of the third edition of Building Construction for the Fire Service shows how a wooden lintel, which no doubt has weakened with age, is supporting an arch.3 A lintel is a horizontal member—in this case, wood—that spans an opening and carries the load above. Imagine that you are advancing a hoseline into an area that necessitates that you pass under this arch. The effects of fire and heat might weaken the lintel further, causing a collapse that could bury you and other attack crew members. This might also occur at a house that is not vacant but not a designated historic site. Imagine now that you are in a vacant historic structure. Has anyone inspected it lately?

3) This balloon-frame house, built in the 1850s, has been sorely neglected. It has a pronounced lean and is a danger to firefighters.


Sand-lime mortar was used in many structures of yesteryear. Ask a new firefighter or company officer what effect a hose stream might have on this material, and the answer would be that sand-lime mortar is water-soluble and, therefore, can be washed away. The catastrophic effect could be a collapse. Not all materials are equal, even when they might appear to be so to the untrained eye. Visitors marvel at marble work in historic buildings. I have found, as Francis L. Brannigan has noted, that beautiful marble in vacant structures can be deceiving. Brannigan explains: “Marble can look perfect yet actually may have turned to chalk. It will collapse under the weight of a fire fighter.” (3,33, italics added)


As stated previously, construction methods vary greatly. Ordinary construction is prominent; most firefighters are aware of the dangers associated with this type of construction. Another construction type that gives firefighters fits is balloon-frame construction. Balloon-frame construction first appeared in 1833, outside of Chicago, where St. Mary’s Church was built for about $400. Instead of using the old European method of masonry and cut stone, the designer used light 2 2 4s and 2 2 6s set closely together. He then used studs and cross-members, and the whole thing was held together with nails; there were no joints. It was a novel and cost-effective approach. Unfortunately, as firefighters today know, if you see a fire burning on the first floor of a balloon-frame house, you had better get to the attic because fire will race upward, unchecked. Opening the balloon frame from the exterior and interior with well-placed hoselines can prevent fire spread, but it will be a battle. Chances are that you have or will run across this type of construction.


Often, you will find the vacant historic structure sitting in the most inopportune place—in the center of the downtown area. A fire in the downtown area can disrupt the local economy. In many cities, the historic downtown area is the main tourist draw, so fire departments must maintain a plan to combat a fire in this area.

All too often, older historic structures sit inches apart, creating avenues of fire spread. Well-placed hoselines and firefighters must enter adjoining structures to prevent the spread of fire. Common cocklofts may present a hazard in older buildings.

Normal ventilation procedures, such as sending a firefighter to the roof, must be weighed against the risk of a collapse of the roof members. If at any point the risk exceeds the benefit, firefighters should be withdrawn from the roof area.


There is no magic formula for preventing or combating a fire in an historic vacant building. First, you should have an aggressive code enforcement division. Its goal should be to prevent a fire and work with preservationists to ensure that as many precautions as necessary are taken to reduce the threat.

A sign stating the following can be affixed to an historical house: “This structure is designated as historic. Firefighters should exercise due caution when operating during a fire. This structure has ….” (Many items can be added in this space, including sand-lime mortar, balloon-frame construction, and deteriorated wood members including lintels and rafters.)

The roof should also be inspected. Applicable hazards found there could be added to the sign as well.

Firefighters should randomly inspect and preplan these structures. An effective preplan will help a company officer or battalion or district chief to ascertain the level of support that will be needed and where those forces can be stationed.

(4) The house on the left is on the National Historic list. Fewer than six inches separates it from an abandoned house.

(5) These structures, all formerly vacant, are now historical sites and share a common cockloft.


The fire chief must impress on city leaders the dangers firefighters face every day. Instead of being divisive, the chief can take the approach that the department supports preservation plans and will work with other agencies to make them reasonably safe. This approach will win hearts and minds as well as protect fire department members. This type of approach is more productive than an antagonistic relationship with preservationists.

Fire departments must be proactive in establishing plans for fighting fires in vacant historical structures. Saving an historic house can have significant public relations benefits for fire departments, since such incidents will have considerable media coverage. More importantly, preplanning will help to ensure that firefighters leave the fire scene without injury.


1. Historic Buildings and Structures National Park Service, http://www.cr.nps.gov/buildings.htm, Accessed July 16, 2003.

2. Firefighter Casualties, United States Fire Admini-stration, http://www.usfa.fema.gov/applications/ffmem/ tally_report.cfm. Accessed July 23, 2002.

3. Brannigan, Francis L. Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition. (Quincy, Mass.: National Fire Protection Association, 1992).

JAY LOWRY is a former firefighter and senior fire marshal for Charleston, South Carolina. He has served on various NFPA committees and has been published in fire service journals. He is a certified firefighter, fire inspector, and fire marshal.


No posts to display