Vacant Structures: The Sleeping Dragons

Vacant Structures: The Sleeping Dragons


VACANT BUILDING occupy large sections of economically depressed areas in cities throughout the United States. They lie like sleeping dragons, waiting to ensare the unprepared firefighter, to inflict injury and possibly death.

These buildings were once proud structures, but because of neglect and disrepair, they have become eyesores on the horizons of America’s urban centers. There they loom defiantly, waiting, deteriorating beyond repair. They are abused by vagrants, scavengers, and thrill-seeking kids who play in them and further destroy their structural stability.

All members of the fire service—chief officers, company officers, and firefighters—must perform and maintain ongoing analyses of these vacant structures before pursuing a “routine” aggressive interior attack. These structures demand a whole new perspective on dealing with fires. We must get away from the “moth to the flame” method of attacking fires. Some of the questions that must be addressed are

  1. Is there a life hazard involved?
  2. Am I sure that this structure is stable?
  3. Does the building have any salvageable value?
  4. Have I performed a comprehensive inspection of all sides before committing my firefighting forces?
  5. Is this the first fire in the structure?
  6. Is there an operational preplan for the fire structure?

If you answer NO to any of these questions, you must rethink your strategy before committing to an offensive attack on the fire.


A building that has been exposed to the ravages of the elements may leak continually. Floor and roof joists can rot; mortar joints can be washed out, trapping moisture behind the veneer brick; and the overall stability of the structure must be considered an unacceptable risk. In the case of a wellinvolved fire, the decision of a defensive attack should be apparent.

Factors that increase the danger of a building collapse are the building’s age, maintenance, and fire records. Buildings, much like humans, have a built-in life span. Without renovations and rehabilitation, this life span decreases dramatically.

The development of a good positive attitude toward safety will reduce injuries and deaths in vacant structure firefighting. Safety is a state of mind that is nourished through proper training procedures. Firefighters must learn to take a long, hard look at these structures when they are out on code enforcement inspections. They should note deficiencies and pass them on to all shifts. A cursory examination of just the front of the building is not good enough. Danger may be lurking in the rear or side, waiting to injure or kill a firefighter.

The incident commander is responsible for ensuring the safety of operating personnel. People are the fire service’s most important asset and their welfare can never be taken lightly. The IC must approach the operation with a willingness to use his investigative powers to make strategic decisions with an emphasis on personnel safety.

There’s no room for complacency during operations. All risks must be identified, the appropriate strategy and tactics must be selected to reduce or eliminate risks, the incident progression must be monitored, and periodic updates must be given. This takes a total team effort facilitated by the establishment of two-way communications. Firefighters operating in and around the fire building must relay pertinent information about the building’s integrity to the IC. In turn, the IC must recognize the imminent dangers and deal with them quickly, but he must not ignore the potential dangers—a safety officer should be assigned to monitor them and apprise the IC of any changes. Furthermore, accountability is inherent for a safe fireground operation. Free-lancing on the fireground is not recommended under any circumstances and should not be tolerated by the incident commander.

Constantly observe the three “P’s”: personnel (who is working, where, and how long they have been there ), procedures (what type of attack is the safest— offensive, defensive, or both), and place of operation (establish your network early on—what you know about the structure’s condition and integrity will help to ensure a safe operation).

First impressions can be deceiving when sizing up a vacant building fire. The incident commander must not compromise safety for expedience when operating at these fires. If the operation is at night, setting up portable lighting should be an early call, not just for overhauling or as an afterthought. Also consider using illumination in the daylight hours. Usually there is no electricity in the structure and you must illuminate any inside operations.

Vacant structures are sometimes used for illegal drug operations, especially drug manufacturing. Some commonly found chemicals used in these clandestine labs are extremely flammable, such as ether and acetone. Others, such as hydrochloric acid and sodium and potassium hydroxide, are so reactive with common materials that release of flammable gases, heat, and explosions may be of sufficient force to affect structural stability.

Fronts of vocont buildings ton always look stable-a quick look at the rear tells another story.

(Photos by John J. Skarbek.)

Deception. These window frames, curtains, and flower pots are painted over the tin-sealed windows of this vacant firefighter trap

(Photo by Paul McFadden.)

Bulgesmoving cracks in masonry walls are serious signs that the structure may collapse.

(Photos by John J. Skarbek.)

You must also take into account that vagrants and street people often use vacant structures. Illegal use of utilities, gas, and electric is a possibility that you should consider before making an interior commitment of firefighting forces. Booby traps deliberately set to injure or kill unsuspecting firefighters are not unheard of. Look for the obvious: use of flammable liquids as accelerants, fires in more than one location, obstacles placed in firefighters’ path, or broken stairs and holes cut in the floor and then covered up with a rug or linoleum. Then look for the hidden signs, such as weakened or removed bathtub braces that could cause local collapse.

Check for extension of fire in adjoining vacant structures with caution. Their structural stability is also questionable.

In firefighting operations in vacant structures, the safety of personnel is the primary objective. Overhauling, if not essential, should be done in daylight hours. Set up a watch line until morning, and if building stability is questionable, have a building engineer inspect it before you enter.

The incident commander should spend more time than usual conducting the building size-up. Are there any signs of previous fires, such as burned-out window frames or debris strewn about? These should send up a red flag. Check for building stability by looking for the telltale signs of potential collapse: Walls and floors that creak, water or smoke pushing out of large cracks in walls, windows and door frames out of plumb, large bulges in bearing walls, a spongy roof or floor, and a small amount of water runoff from master streams mean an overload within the structure. All in attendance must share this size-up and communication responsibility to ensure a safe operation.

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