BY ADAM O’CONNOR
There is a difference between a dilapidated, unsafe, “abandoned” structure and a “semivacant” structure. In an abandoned structure, firefighters should take caution because the structure is unsafe-not just a structure that looks empty but one that is truly unsafe. A collapsed roof, eviscerated walls, or missing floors are reasons to call a structure unsafe. Boarded-up windows and tall grass are not indicators of danger but of transition. It is important that you know the difference between abandoned and semivacant structures so that you take the appropriate amount of risk when conducting a primary search.
(1) This structure appears vacant, but it is structurally sound. (Photos by author.)
A semivacant structure may not look occupied. It may have tall grass or boarded windows because it has no official occupants. However, if it is structurally sound and easily accessed, there is a high probability it is being used by transients or trespassing children. Search such structures with this factor in mind when conducting the risk/benefit analysis. Preplanning a semivacant structure can make a search safer and more effective.
HISTORY OF DECLINE
Our downtown neighborhoods are full of abandoned and semivacant structures. The abandoned structures are usually on a demolition list and are razed as funds become available. We are usually aware of these structures. The semivacant structures are harder to pinpoint and can go on for decades in a state of fluctuation before they become abandoned. To understand the elusive existence of semivacant structures, you have to understand the history that created them. Most 19th century industrial cities developed around waterways, and then railways. They had dense inner cores surrounded by multistory factories and housing. As assembly-line production gained popularity, the old five-story factory became obsolete. For modern factories to make “the line” work, they had to be one level and expansive. They had to be in the suburbs. Other improvements made this move to the suburbs possible. The highway systems made it expedient for suburban factories to ship their goods, and the personal automobile made them accessible to their workforce. The downtown factories were no longer practical, and the neighborhoods around them began to die a slow death.
(2) The same structure from the rear. The obvious signs of illegal entry should alert firefighters to the possibility that the structure may be occupied and a search should be considered.
When the large urban factories left the inner core, so did the workers. As the downtown neighborhoods began to wilt, they went from being owner-occupied to rental communities. Large real estate investors bought thousands of homes, which became section eight, or government-subsidized, housing. Because of the transient nature of many section-eight renters and the slim profit margins realized by the real estate investors, occupancy of these homes fluctuates dramatically.
When a renter leaves a home, it is often left unsecured until the owner knows it is empty. This leaves the home open to transients and children and can be a real problem for a neighborhood. This can go on for years. There are several reasons for a prolonged time lapse between renters. Many times, a vacant home will sit for months before the landlord knows the renter has left. You can identify these homes first by the growth of weeds and grass in the summer and the unshoveled walks in the winter. By the time the landlord finds out the home is vacant, it is often damaged by the elements and animals. Occupancy is then further delayed because the owner must make costly and time-consuming repairs. This is only the tip of the iceberg. If the home is repossessed by a note holder or if it is involved in a crime, it may sit for years as lawsuits are settled and court cases languish.
The occupancy pendulum also swings in the other direction. Just as these homes are abruptly and quickly left vacant, so, too, are they rehabilitated and reinhabited. A house two doors down from our station sat vacant for years. In one week, it was cleaned up, the bushes were trimmed, and a “For Rent” sign was stuck in the front yard. We never even saw the workers. If that address would have come in as a house fire, we might have assumed it was unoccupied-a dangerous assumption if a worker or new renter were inside.
MAKING THE CALL
A semivacant home can be a tough call for a first-in officer. There are more unknowns when entering these structures, but you will never know if they are vacant until you search them. A search may not be possible on every structure, but it has to be the first priority. Structural integrity, fire load, and signs of inhabitation are three of the major considerations in making the entry decision. Fire load will show itself, but structural integrity and inhabitation are hard to discern in the few seconds you have to make a call. The only way to help yourself in this tense situation is to collect the information you need before the run comes in. You can make your own breaks on fire runs by assessing these semivacant structures beforehand and preplanning your operations.
TAKE A WALK
Preplanning doesn’t have to be formal. You can start by taking a walk. Our station sits in one of these old neighborhoods; many times we will take a short walk after supper. We never go farther than the blocks sitting contiguous to the one on which our station sits, but we see plenty. In the blocks just east of our station, we have identified three abandoned homes and at least 10 semivacant homes. We know they are semivacant because many of them show signs of illegal use or are being repaired and will soon be back on the market. The abandoned homes are in serious disrepair and more than likely will be torn down by the city as funds become available. Remember, there is a difference between a dilapidated abandoned structure and one that is temporarily vacant or semivacant. These abandoned structures look as though they can be pushed over with a pike pole. Trees will be growing out of the roof, and raccoons will be living in the attic. The walls and foundations will be crumbling and will reveal charring from previous fires. Firefighters should slow down when working in and around these structures.
(3) This structure appears to be vacant; its stability may be questionable.
A semivacant home is more structurally sound. It may have a pile of soggy newspapers on the front porch and a hay field in the front yard, but this doesn’t mean it is empty. Transients don’t want to be wet or cold anymore than you do. They will use this semivacant home with a good roof for a night or maybe for a month. These semivacant homes don’t usually have gas or electric service. This means any ignition source in the home is probably related to human activities, such as cooking, heating, smoking, or drug use. Somebody was in there! A primary search is warranted, if at all possible.
It is important to know if squatters are on a property when preplanning a semivacant structure. Knowing which door is being used to gain illegal entry to the residence will indicate where to start your search. An occupant trapped in a fire often will try to escape the burning structure through the same door he entered. You can determine the entry door by reading signs such as obviously open doors and windows, loose or broken plywood, or foot traffic. Look for tracks in the snow or beaten paths in the grass or weeds. We have also found stepladders set up to gain entry through windows and extension cords that were run from a neighbor’s house. These are reliable indicators of inhabitation.
TALK TO VISITORS
When someone who obviously looks homeless (i.e., pushing a shopping cart, wearing three layers of clothing, or asking for our aluminum cans) comes into the station, I always ask where he or she is staying. Occasionally, the individual is honest about the living situation.
TALK TO NEIGHBORS
On medical runs or service calls, I often talk with the kids who gather around the truck. You can also get some really good information. Kids in our neighborhood like firefighters and have no compunction about talking with us. Ask them if they see people going in and out of the vacant homes on their block and which entrances they use.
(4) The same structure from the rear. It is open to the elements, has had a previous fire, and has a soggy roof. Firefighters should slow down when entering this structure.
Often the neighbors will come out to talk with us when we are looking at a vacant home. Usually, it is to complain about raccoons or weeds. One time, however, a concerned neighbor told us that teenagers were trespassing in the house behind her. We couldn’t stop the trespassing, but we did preplan our entry to both floors and took note of a weak two-story porch on the rear of the structure.
SOGGY TOP, SOGGY BOTTOM
Most of us have put a foot, or more, through a floor in our career. Bad floors are a fact of life, not a reason to panic. If the roof on a home is in poor condition, eventually the floor condition becomes poor. Be cautious, but you can still search. It might mean that you have to enter from a different side of the structure or stay on a wall and sweep with a tool. You may not be able to be as aggressive as you would in a new home, but something is better than nothing; give those potential victims a chance.
KNOW THE LAYOUT
Many larger homes in older neighborhoods are chopped into several apartments. Know the entrance to all of them. Recently, we picked the wrong door on a working fire that had vented out a second-story window in a semivacant structure. After kicking in the door and climbing over a washing machine, a riding lawn mower, and a couch, we realized there were no stairs to the second floor. As flames licked onto the occupied structure next door, we scrambled to find the stairwell to the fire apartment and disentangle our hose. The neighbor later told investigators that she had seen a man go in and out of the fire apartment through a pulled piece of plywood for some time. If we would have preplanned the structure, we probably would have known this and the location of the stairs.
Determine if there is a basement. In a residential structure, there is a much greater chance of falling through the floor than of having the roof fall in on you. A rotten roof was holding itself up before you got there; a rotten floor didn’t have to carry any weight until you crawled in. Know how to get in and out of the basement if you need to.
Fires in semivacant structures will force officers into making tough calls. They are tough because there are no absolutes: The structures are vacant one day and occupied the next. They are dilapidated for years and then are rehabilitated in a week and placed back on the market. They can look completely vacant and have homeless people inside. (I found a woman and two children living in an abandoned trailer behind my house this spring. They had been living there for six weeks before I knew about them.) You can help yourself in these situations. Be prepared. Know the home’s history, its layout, its structural problems, and its positives-and try to keep track of whether it is occupied. Do your preplanning; when you arrive on-scene, you will have information in your database to help you make a decision.
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The honor in this job is that we make tough calls and take risks to try and save others. We constantly talk about our own safety. Of course, we need to be smart. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the mission and our responsibility to others. There is a difference between abandoned homes and semivacant homes. The first should be approached with caution; the second should be searched with a higher level of aggression than a structure that is clearly abandoned. ■
■ ADAM O’CONNOR is a firefighter with the Fort Wayne (IN) Fire Department. He is a member of the Hazardous Materials Team and the Technical Rescue Team and an instructor in search and rescue and flashover at the Fort Wayne Fire Academy.