Is it Still Business as Usual?


We’ve taked about a few things recently such as looking at the big picture related to buildings and occupancies and the functional parameters dealing with size-up and risk assessment. Then there’s the dialog and discussion on the Predictability of Performance related to buildings and occupancies. Back in July I talked about a number of operational considerations realated to firefighter safety at Vacant Structures that built upon a posting on vacant or unoccupied building determinations and the question: is it business as usual?

Over the weekend some lively dialog and discussion was overheard regarding the advantages and disadvantages of working a fire in a vacant or unoccupied structure and the value of such company officer or command level descision-making. It still appears to be a hot button topic (to some) and has its camps of interest and champions on either side of the street. How does your viewpoint fit in? Is it STILL business as usual?
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.


What are your thoughts on the issues related to conducting offensive, tactical operations in vacant or unoccupied structures? Does the level of direpair or dilapidation dictate the call? What are the actual or perceived risks? Does working the job, balance with the the risk, benefits, returns? 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 previously published insights for reconsiderations;

  • 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.
  • Maintain effective and heightened situational awareness at all times
  • Conduct or delegate a 360 reconn of the affected structure, if the building profile allows
  • 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.

A recent article related to a recently released NIOSH LODD Report from 2006 on a Career Firefighter injured during rapid fire progression in an Abandoned Structure who died six days later in Georgia summarized and recommended that Fire departments, municipalities and organizations like NFPA that set standards should consider developing and implementing a system for identifying and marking unoccupied, vacant or abandoned structures to improve firefighter safety. Take the time to read the report.

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