I was interviewed recently by a national financial and news reporting network on the topic of the escalating home foreclosure rate related to the depressed economy and its impact on the fire service. It was interesting to note that this highly respected and prominent news network was interested in gaining an understanding and perspective on the demands and safety issues affecting the fire service related to the apparent increasing trend in vacant structure fires.

I’ve published a couple of postings related to Vacant Building Fire Reports and Vacant or Unoccupied Fire issues over the past two months. The NFPA recently published their Vacant Buildings Fire Report that provided research insights on the increase in vacant building fires and the matter of increased concern as the economy continues to weaken. The fire analysis and research compiled is from the period of 2003-2006.

Although these are lagging indicators from that time period, it’s becoming increasing apparent through eMedia reporting, conference discussions and peer dialog that the combined economic hardships, current foreclosure rate on residential homes and the suggested increase in operations and incidents at vacant structures has an adverse impact on fire service operations and an increased risk to firefighter safety. These current impacts will become self evident when the incident date is analyzed and published next year. In terms of the immediate, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to conduct an online search and see the magnitude of the demands associated with fire operations in vacant structures. Take a look HERE, HERE, for some examples.

As the escalating adverse trend continues, and more and more buildings become vacant and unoccupied, now is the time to focus greater attention on adequate risk assessments and effective strategic size-up with firefighter safety considerations remaining clear and distinguished.There may be a lot of reasons why a vacant building turns into a structure fire, that ultimately involves our services; don’t let that contribute to an undesired injury or worst.

Here are some insights for considerations;

Implement and perform an effective dynamic risk assessment of the incident involving a vacant structure.

Consider an appropriate incident action plan and options for defensive operations, risk versus benefit considerations out weighing offensive interior operations. Refer to; Tactical Entertainment HERE

Maintain effective and heightened situational awareness at all times

Conduct or delegate a 360 recon of the affected structure

Consider the factors related to presumed Vacant or Unoccupied; and the suggested demands associated with search team deployment, escalating and rapid fire spread, decreased time-to-collapse potential and RIT Team availability, be aware of potential squatters

Vacant residential occupancies constructed within the past ten years are very likely to have engineered structural systems (ESS) that will increase the potential early structural collapse and increase unacceptable risk to firefighter safety.

Resulting time delays in the discovery and reporting of fires in vacant structures increases fire severity and magnitude, increases the potential fire spread and communication to adjacent structures and requires adequate resources and fire flows to combat fire suppression activities.

Conduct pre-incident planning to identify the magnitude of the vacant structures within your jurisdiction and define operational expectations and deployment strategies. It shouldn’t be business as usual. Consider the safety risks to firefighters.

Assume potential for compromised interior conditions resulting from vandalism and intentional destruction of interior walls, floors, Compartmentation and structural system integrity.

Assume rapid fire extension and early structural collapse potential
Identify and establish collapse zone perimeters and maintain them for firefighter safety.
Develop or enhance operating protocols for fire operations for both vacant residential AND commercial properties. Determine acceptable risk profiles and operational modes. Consider the Rules of Engagement.

Be consciously cautious with personnel safety foremost in your IAP and tactical operations; Remember this is vacant structure.


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We arrived on scene of a fully involved boarded up restaurant earlier this year...we got word that a homeless guy had been squatting there and may have started the fire trying to keep warm that night...thankfully he wasn't there....good info. Thanks!
Great information. I have one question for you Christopher. What do you think about the theory that every structure is considered occupied until proven otherwise? I know our department treats them that way and I feel that way too. That being said we do take into consideration a lot of the things you pointed out above and hopefully our officers are doing a proper risk assessment.
In our dept, we risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little. A good 360 is essentail part of of scean size up. without the 360 how can IC make a good judgement as to how to make an attack should be made. If the structure is half or fully involved we will not make an interer attack.
Chris....this topic and your article specifically has really sparked an interest on my shift....we have begone to go out in the district and take a more active approach in identifying our vacant structures in investigating to see if squatters are present.

My question to you is do you have some sort of flow chart, sop, or information reguarding the level of operations acceptable in a vacant sstructure based on the assesment of a firs due company officer....more plainly something like If I see A then I should do B or If I dont see A or B I should do C....thanks for all your help.
Good article, the steps you listed above should just be considered some extra steps in the size up / risk assessment phase. The operating status of a building should never be the sole determining factor for interior attack. I have had students who were vehemently opposed to operations in vacants, but when presented with scenarios of differing fire conditions in various structures they become confused to an extent. The keys to me are reading the construction type, actual structural conditions and the extent / location of fire. There are plenty of occupied, lightweight McMansions that scare me far more than a boarded up farm house. Good stuff
A building cannot be declared vacant, until it has been searched and comfirmed vacant. Rule number 1: Never ASSUME! Stay safe!
Go to the NIOSH CDC Site; NIOSH Alert: Preventing Deaths and Injuries of Fire Fighters When Fighting Fires in Unoccupied Structures. NIOSH Docket 141 http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/review/public/141/default.html

Also check out the Flint (MI) Fire Department http://www.cityofflint.com/Fire/fire.asp
Vacant Structures Report; http://www.cityofflint.com/fire/FFD%20Injuries%20at%20Vacant%20Stru...

Vacant Building Operations Policy http://www.cityofflint.com/fire/FFD%20Abandoned%20Building%20Policy...

Let me offer the following for thought;

Vacant; refers to a building that is not currently in use, but which could be used in the future. The term “vacant” could apply to a property that is for sale or rent, undergoing renovations, or empty of contents in the period between the departure of one tenant and the arrival of another tenant. A vacant building has inherent property value, even though it does not contain valuable contents or human occupants.

Unoccupied; generally refers to a building that is not occupied by any persons at the time an incident occurs. An unoccupied building could be used by a business that is temporarily closed (i.e. overnight or for a weekend). The term unoccupied could also apply to a building that is routinely or periodically occupied; however the occupants are not present at the time an incident occurs. A residential structure could be temporarily unoccupied because the residents are at work or on vacation. A building that is temporarily unoccupied has inherent property value as well as valuable contents.

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