Operating in Vacant Buildings Calls for Alertness to Hazards

Operating in Vacant Buildings Calls for Alertness to Hazards

Fighting fires in vacant buildings is particularly dangerous because of the special hazards that fire fighters encounter in such structures. In many cases, derelicts, vandals, looters and even children enter these buildings and create hazards for fire fighters.

These trespassers may open up the building so that fire will spread more rapidly, or they may tear out parts of the building so that it is more likely to collapse during a fire. In times of civil strife, booby traps may be set before torching off a vacant building.

Although there are all types of vacant buildings throughout most cities, most fires occur in unboarded, vacant dwellings. The major hazards in vacant dwellings will be discussed in this article, but the principles used to locate these hazards and avert injury to personnel are applicable to all vacant buildings.

Stairs can be dangerous

Stairways are dangerous because not only treads, but the entire stairway or part of it may be weakened or missing. Also, the banister may be weakened or missing.

Don’t trust any stairways or banisters. Use a light to visually inspect stairs, and before putting your weight on a wooden stairway, kick it hard with the heel of your boot or strike it with a tool. If a stairway feels weak, don’t trust it. Wait for a ladder to be placed over it or find another way to get to the upper floor.

Place your weight gradually on one step at a time and keep close to the wall. Truckmen should use tools to test steps in front of them. Don’t bunch up on stairs, platforms and landings. On marble and metal stairways, beware of cracked or missing marble treads and landings. If treads are out, walk on the metal risers, placing the arch of your foot on the narrow metal riser. Don’t rely on any balustrade, banister or newel post. Use your light going up and down stairs.

Holes in floors

Holes in floors are found in all sections of a building, including the entrance. Sometimes these holes are camouflaged with paper, linoleum, furniture, doors or cardboard boxes. In many cases, the removal of bathroom fixtures from all floors creates a shaft through which men can fall or fire can travel unchecked. In factory buildings, there may be holes where heavy machinery has been removed.

Use your light to spot holes and probe the floor with tools. Be suspicious of doors, paper, or cardboard boxes on the floor or furniture that may conceal a hole. Engine company men should keep a firm grip on the hose and hang on if they should fall.

Don’t enter bathrooms until you can see the floor or feel with tools or your hands that it is intact and solid. In heavy smoke, crawl on the floor, using tools and hands to feel in front of yourself.

Wall openings

Sometimes walls, or parts of them, have been removed between apartments and even between attached buildings. When such a condition is involved in a fire, two engine companies can work against each other without being aware of it and both companies will take a lot of punishment.

Holes in party walls between attached buildings are usually just large enough for a person to squeeze through. The holes usually are made by dope pushers or addicts—or others with criminal intent—as means of escape from the police. In some cases, such holes connect three to four buildings and create a serious exposure hazard during a fire.

When engine companies are working in adjacent apartments and neither is making headway because of what seems to be an abnormal amount of heat and smoke, the officers should communicate with one another. Their companies may be driving the heat and smoke against each other through a missing or partially missing wall.

One company should be backed out to see if the other company can advance more readily. If it can’t, back out this company and let the other company try to advance. Generally this procedure works.

Breach wall to hit fire

Another method is to take a charged line into an uninvolved adjacent apartment to a point opposite the main body of fire. Then breach the lath and plaster wall and hit the fire through the hole while the first line remains at apartment entrance with door to public hallway closed.

This method is also useful when only one apartment is involved in a vacant building but smoke and heat conditions in a long hall are extreme. This may be because all the windows in the apartment are tinned over or, if they are open, a stiff breeze is blowing against you. Both situations make the advancement of hose lines difficult.

Truckmen must be alert to advise engine companies of such situations and also to alert chief officers of any holes in walls between buildings so that they can be covered by hand lines.

Gas, electric, water service

Vacant buildings also have problems associated with utilities. Broken pipes can flood a cellar to a dangerous depth, especially to a fireman who falls from the floor above and is stunned or unconscious. On upper floors, broken pipes can create an ice condition in apartments which might last all winter.

Use your light in cellars and listen for running water. Don’t step into cellars without looking or feeling with tools. If you have to enter a flooded cellar, be careful. Watch for holes, such as oil burner pits and house trap pits. Go slowly, feeling with a tool, and always make certain another fire fighter knows you are in the cellar.

In frigid weather, be careful about ice on upper floors. There may be ice where you don’t expect it.

Broken or open gas meters or pipes may cause gas to accumulate in cellars. In some cases, meters are in kitchens or bathrooms on upper floors and may not be shut off or may be broken. Your senses of smell and hearing are important in these situations—use them. A gas company may paint the letters AGO on the front of a building to indicate “all gas off.” However, this practice was discontinued in New York because it was an invitation to vandals. In any event, don’t rely on an AGO. Pipes may be broken or the meter or main entry pipe may have been torn off the wall.

The sense of smell is important in detecting the presence of gas. Report any odor of gas to your officer or the officer in command. When an attempt is made to shut off gas that has been leaking for some time, limit personnel in the area to an officer and one fire fighter, and have a charged line near the area.

It is possible that live wires may be found. Occasionally, the utility company is unaware that the building is vacant or persons break locks on meters and activate the service again. At times, people will lead live wires into vacant buildings from nearby buildings.

All wires should be treated as though they were live—without exception and especially in cellars containing water.

People in buildings

Another problem in vacant buildings is the presence of derelicts or children at play, or even persons with criminal intentions who may attack fire fighters surprising them in illegal acts. Ladder company members who may have to work alone should be especially watchful for this last hazard.

Ladder companies must make primary and secondary searches of vacant buildings because of the possibility of derelicts or children being trapped. As for persons with criminal intent, always be alert and try to stay with your unit, or at least another man. Notify your officer before moving away from his supervision.

Furniture hazards

Furniture, either left by tenants or dumped into the building, can block an entry or exit and cause engine companies difficulty in advancing lines. Sometimes furniture is piled 3 or 4 feet high in a room, and it also may cover a hole in the floor. Many times, a pile of furniture will be burning at the front entrance when companies arrive at a building.

When furniture is in the way, officers should assign men to clear a path while other men operate a hose line to protect them. There may be holes in the floor under furniture, so the men must work carefully. Don’t crowd the doorway because men doing the heavy work may want to get out fast for some fresh air. If the pile of furniture blocking the entrance is burning, wet it down thoroughly before trying to clear a path through it.

Missing doors

The removal of doors to apartments increases the problem of fire spread because open doorways enable fire to spread upward and laterally quicker. Caution should be exercised by men working above a burning apartment when doors are missing.

Men may be waiting for water, ready to confine the fire to the apartment where it started, and feel confident that they will soon have water. However, they should never feel too confident. The wait for water may be a long one because defective hydrants are common in areas where there are many vacant buildings.

A good procedure for a company waiting for water in such a situation is to remove a door from an apartment below the fire and hold the door over the entrance to the burning apartment. This will help contain the fire until the water arrives. This is also a good practice for a ladder company that arrives before any engine companies.

Use caution when placing a door in position and bolt it in place with a 6-foot pike pole or a piece of wood taken from some part of the building. The use of a hand extinguisher around the door will keep fire out of a hall for quite some time. When doors are missing and there is a good body of fire present, don’t work in the hall or on stairs above the burning apartment.


If accelerants have performed their function and three or four rooms are involved, you will know on arrival that you have a sizable fire and will operate accordingly. However, there are times when you will arrive before the accelerants have burned completely and you may see only a wisp of smoke or a small fire.

Here again, your sense of smell is important. If you smell anything strange, or anything similar to the odor of gasoline or oil, move cautiously. Don’t pass by or go above a small fire. The accelerant may be spread over an entire apartment and out into the public hall. If it is, the entire area can light up instantaneously and trap you in a room or above the fire.

Any suspicion of the use of an accelerant must be reported to the officer in command for transmittal to the fire investigation bureau or the fire marshal.

Working on roofs

When roof operations are involved, all the hazards of an occupied building are also present in a vacant building. These hazards include open shafts, wires, antennas, ice and snow in the winter, darkness at night and unfamiliarity with the roof, and these will be compounded by the fact that the building is vacant. Parapets may be destroyed, and TV antennas may be broken and strewn around the roof. Also, there may be accumulations of rubbish, garbage and even furniture. There may be holes in the roof as a result of vandalism or previous fires, and in rows of tenements, light and air shafts make it necessary for men to use extreme caution while moving about.

Your eyes will be your major asset in daylight. Be alert and don’t walk backwards. In smoke, feel your way with a tool, or crawl and use your hands to feel ahead. Remember that ladder companies may have cut holes in the roof during previous fires.

At night, your hand light is necessary. Avoid working near the edge of a roof at all times. Proceed slowly, orient yourself so you can leave safely if smoke blocks your vision when you have to get off a roof. If this happens, drop to your knees and crawl, feeling ahead with your hands or a tool. Engine company men can follow their line to safety. As in all roof operations, the main precaution is to avoid committing the main portion of your weight until you feel solid roof ahead, and try to work with the wind to your back.

Fire escape hazards

Fire escapes are another source of hazards. The entire fire escape may be weakened, or steps may be missing or loose. Railings can be loose or missing, and the gooseneck ladder to the roof may be unsecured at the top. Sometimes this has been done purposely. In addition, drop ladders may be bent or missing.

Test a fire escape from a window before putting all your weight on it. At night, use your light to check all steps, and before using a gooseneck ladder, pull on it and see if it is loose. If there is any doubt about the stability of a fire escape, don’t use it. When you find defects in a fire escape, pass the word along to the men behind you, and don’t let men bunch up on fire escapes.

Danger of collapse

So far, we have discussed hazards in various parts of a vacant building, but remember, the entire building or major parts of it may be unsafe. The walls may be cracked or leaning, floors may lack proper support, or the entire building may be unsafe because of age, vandalism or previous fires. One or more previous fires can weaken floor beams, bearing partitions and brick walls. These conditions may not be apparent when you arrive, so you must keep an eye out for spongy floors, leaning walls, beams pulled out of walls, and missing interior partitions and columns. Any of these structural defects should be reported to the officer in command immediately. Company officers also should report any personal knowledge of structural weaknesses caused by previous fires to the officer in command.

When officers have doubts about the structural stability of a building, they must immediately inform the chief in charge and notify all fire fighters in the danger area. This action can avert many injuries.

Remember, the watchword for operations in vacant buildings is “caution.”

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