Risk versus Gain: Operations in Vacant or Abandoned Structures


Fire Fighter LODD after Being Trapped in a Roof Collapse During Overhaul of a Vacant/Abandoned Building. NIOSH recently published a report on a 2008 LODD that occurred in a vacant/ abandoned building. NIOSH Report F2008-0037. The full report is available HERE. Let’s look at some insights and overviews of that report.


Report Summary

On November 15, 2008, a 38-year-old male fire fighter  died after being crushed by a roof collapse in a vacant/abandoned building. Fire fighters initially used a defensive fire attack to extinguish much of the fire showing from the second-floor windows on arrival. After the initial knockdown, fire crews entered the second floor to perform overhaul operations. During overhaul, the roof collapsed with several fire fighters still inside, on the second floor. The victim and two other fire fighters were trapped under a section of the roof. Crews were able to rescue two fire fighters (who self-extricated), but could not immediately find the victim. After cutting through roofing materials, the victim was located by fire fighters, unconscious and unresponsive.


He was removed from the structure and transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. Key contributing factors identified in this investigation include: dilapidated building conditions, incendiary fire originating in the unprotected structural roof members, inadequate risk-versus-gain analysis prior to committing to interior operations involving a vacant/abandoned structure, inadequate accountability system, lack of a safety officer, an inadequate maintenance program for self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and a poorly maintained and likely inoperable personal alert safety systems (PASS), ineffective strategies for the prevention of and the remediation of vacant/abandoned structures and arson prevention.


Inherent Construction Issues

This incident occurred in a vacant unsecured residential structure which had experienced a previous fire approximately one year prior to this incident. During interviews with NIOSH investigators, fire fighters reported large amounts of fire showing from all windows on the second floor on arrival. Fire fighters also reported that the roof had burned through on the Side B/C and one fire fighter reported he could see the sky while ascending the interior stairs to perform overhaul. It is not known if the roof conditions were communicated to the incident commander before fire fighters were assigned to operate on the roof. The fire fighters were unaware of the conditions such as the exposed roof assembly, possible removal of rafter connectors (collar beams), and the use of a flammable liquid in the structural members of the roof and second floor attic area. The roof assembly (being unprotected) was directly involved as part of the fuel in this fire.


The large dormer on the A-side presents an identifiable inherent risk factor (due to the potential for structural compromise or failure) when found on 1.5 story bungalow style residential structure due to the integral manner in which the dormer structure, i.e., roof rafters, dormer framing and roofing boards along with the functionality of the ridge beam must function in order to retain structural integrity under fire conditions. The dormer may be actually supported at the upper end directly onto the roofing boards, which in turn are supported by the perpendicular roof rafters. This creates a potential area for pronounced degradation when exposed to direct or indirect flame impingement creating an area prone to early structural compromise and eventual failure.


Although the initial defensive strategy in fighting the fire was successful in knocking down the fire, the incident commander may have benefited from a continuous risk-versus-gain analysis before allowing crews to operate on interior during overhaul. The first arriving officer reported that he performed a walk around prior to allowing crews to enter the structure and the building appeared intact, but he would not have known of the alterations to the interior roof system and the removal of critical structural members. Interior condition and roof condition reports might have revealed the burned-through area of the roof, and tactics could have been altered to keep fire fighters off the roof and out of the structure.


Report Recommendations included;

  • Ensure that the incident commander conducts a risk-versus-gain analysis prior to committing to interior operations in vacant/abandoned structures and continues the assessment throughout the operations
  • Ensure SOPs are developed for fighting fires in vacant/abandoned buildings
  • Ensure that the incident commander maintains close accountability for all personnel operating on the fireground
  • Ensure that a separate incident safety officer, independent from the incident commander, is appointed at each structure fire
  • Ensure that a respiratory protection program is in place to provide for the selection, care, maintenance, and use of respiratory protection equipment, including PASS devices.

Additionally, municipalities and local authorities having jurisdiction should:

  • Develop strategies for the prevention of and the remediation of vacant/abandoned structures and for arson prevention.

Although there is no evidence that the following recommendations could have prevented this fatality, NIOSH investigators recommend that fire departments:

  • Ensure that an EMS unit is on scene and available for fire fighter emergency care at working structure fires
  • Develop inspection criteria to ensure that all protective ensembles meet the requirements of NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting
  • Be aware of programs that provide assistance in obtaining alternative funding, such as grant funding, to replace or purchase fire equipment that can support critical fire department operations.

Vacant or Unoccupied: Tactical Risk and Safety

I’ve commented on this subject a few times. We seem to do a lot of things at times out of common practice and repetition, you know; “We’ve always done it that way….” syndrome. There’s a resonating theme that is making its way around the fire service dealing with going to a defensive tactical posture at vacant or unoccupied structure fires.

This command posture leads to limiting interior operating engagement, while promoting a high degree of risk management. With that being said, there are also plenty of opinions on these types of policies as such, since this type of tactical effort may be contrary to the local “culture and traditions” of the responding agencies and may be a hard pill to swallow, since we’re in the job of “ fighting ALL fires..” Please refresh your memories on a past post on Tactical Entertainment HERE and HERE


Here are some basic definitions to keep us all on the same playing field;


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.


Here’s a formulative question;

  • As a responding company, you arrive at the scene of a vacant or unoccupied structure. The building’s construction features and systems have inherent risk associated with the occupancy, (as is the case with nearly all of our structures and occupancies).
  • Your company determines that you’re going to go defensive, even though you probably could make a reasonably safe entry and engage in interior structural fire suppression.
  • Would there be any repercussions in your station, battalion/district/community or organization if you took this tactic?
  • What are YOUR personal thoughts on this form of risk management?

 Some insights, HERE and HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE


Additional Links, HERE, HERE and HERE


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