Firefighter Safety at Vacant Structures

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, HERE and 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 potentialIdentify 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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