Let’s talk about the dreaded “vacant building.” Every community has them, some more than others. There are many ongoing debates in the fire service regarding these buildings. Do we search them? Do we vent them? Do we start an offensive attack? Feel free to add to the list of questions with issues from your department or area.
When it comes to vacant buildings, it’s important to look at them for what they really are—buildings that, for some reason, people have walked away from, deciding not to continue to occupy or maintain them. Maybe they couldn’t pay the mortgage; maybe they couldn’t find a renter; maybe the company went out of business—who knows! What we do know—technically speaking—is that nobody is formally occupying the structure. We also know that if there’s smoke or fire showing, we need to take action. So what do we do?
2 Keys to Vacant Structure Fires
There are two keys to success when dealing with vacant building fires—keys that apply to both truck and engine crews: First, perform proactive vacant building operations: Get out in your district, look at the vacant buildings, and put together a game plan before the next fire.
Second, practice common-sense fireground decision-making when dealing with vacant building fires. Specifically, if the building is structurally sound and not fully involved, then we’re probably going into normal fireground operations. From a truck company perspective, this involves size-up, forcible entry, search, ventilation, opening up for attack and overhaul. It also means that we’re anticipating defensive operations and the aerial is going to be set up.
If the building is not structurally sound and there are heavy fire (and sometimes just heavy smoke) conditions on arrival, then we’re probably going defensive either right away or within a few minutes. From a truck company perspective, this involves size-up, possible forcible entry and/or opening up for stream access, master stream operations and eventually some type of search and overhaul.
With all this in mind, let’s now turn to the truck company basics for handling vacant structures.
Building Type: Is this a residential or commercial building? Is it a residence, apartment, multi-use, strip mall or stand-alone store? You know your building types and your normal fireground tactics, so match that knowledge with this vacant structure.
Fire Conditions: What are the fire conditions on arrival? Is there smoke showing and is the smoke light (maybe a trash fire) or heavy (some contents or maybe even the structure itself)? Is there any visible fire showing? Where is the fire showing from: a door, windows, the roof? Here’s the big (and tough) question: Can you attack it and put it out? We need an HONEST and REALISTIC answer to this one.
Building Conditions: What condition is the building in? If it’s in your first-due district, this question should be a no-brainer, as you should already be familiar with the structure. Is it recently vacated or has it been vacant for a while? Is it falling apart? Have you been inside to determine the layout and, if so, what were the conditions? It’s too late now to plan; it’s time to make a decision!
The Bottom Line Questions: Is this offensive or defensive now? What’s it going to be five minutes from now? Size-up is a continuous process but it has to start from the first arrival on scene.
Forcible Entry/Opening Up
In almost all cases, the doors and windows are covered with a minimum of oriented strand board (OSB) that’s either screwed into the frames or applied with a HUD-style attachment. Many times, only the lower floors are secured and the upper floors are left uncovered. Sometimes the commercial properties are more heavily secured from a distance, but upon closer inspection, the coverings are easily overcome.
The truck company’s obligation at this point remains the same: Force entry so the engine company can stretch and so that a primary search can be conducted. If the chief (or initial commander) decides—before, during or after forcible entry and opening up—that this will be a defensive operation, then you may simply be performing this part of your job so that the streams have access to the fire. If the collapse hazard is too great, then you may not even perform this part of the operation.
If you’re pulling OSB windows, then you’re probably already performing horizontal ventilation. You may still have to break out any windows that are behind the boards, but that requires fireground information that must be factored into the decision. Is this an offensive operation? Has the engine stretched into the building? Is there any visible fire? Will venting the window accelerate conditions before the engine is in position? Note: These are all the same questions you would ask when dealing with an occupied structure.
What about vertical ventilation? Again, you’ll have to factor in fireground information. Will the roof support the operation? Will opening the roof assist the operation? Is it already self-vented?
Consider the following: You’re dealing with an upper-floor fire in a vacant 2½-story residence. Fire is blowing out windows on both sides of the second floor, and there’s heavy smoke from a gable window in the attic. There are two exposures, one on each side of the main fire building, and they are eight feet away. What if they were 16 feet away? What about 30 feet? Will venting help?
Offensive operations in vacant buildings are no different than occupied buildings when it comes to laddering. If we’re inside, then we need ladders outside. If it’s an offensive operation that becomes defensive, then make sure to get the ladders out of the way so they don’t get destroyed.
The aerial device, ladder or platform should always be positioned for use—offensive or defensive. When it comes to vacant buildings, there’s a much higher probability that the operation will turn defensive, so position accordingly. (See below for aerial operations at vacant building fires.)
Attack & Search
You have to use common sense for fire attack and search ops at vacant building operations.
During offensive attack operations at a vacant building fire, the truck company’s role should be no different than its role at an occupied building. Search for the fire and for any occupants, and then assist the attack team with controlling and containing the fire in the fire area. When it comes to search, if you’re in the building, then you need to search it.
During defensive attack operations, there may be a cursory search from the exterior or there may be no initial search at all. At some point, you will need to determine if there are any viable occupants, but this decision may not come until very late into the operation.
As was mentioned during laddering, the aerial should be positioned for use from the beginning. When it comes to vacant buildings, depending on their condition, there may be a higher probability for aerial master stream use.
Aerial master stream operations should focus on putting the fire out! That’s right, putting it out. Aerial master stream operations require volume and pressure to produce effective flows. What seems like a complicated fireground event is actually pretty simple—supply the correct amount of water at the correct pressure to produce an effective fire stream at the tip of the aerial. But you need to figure it out before the fire occurs by asking yourself the following questions: What base pressure do you need on your aerial to provide 1,000 gpm? 1,500 gpm? How do you achieve it?
The Reality of Vacant Buildings
We have a lot of vacant buildings in our response area. There are more vacant residential buildings than commercial buildings. The condition of these buildings varies from falling apart to structurally sound. Some have been vacant for years; some were occupied yesterday and vacant today. The reality is that if we can begin offensive fireground operations—operations that are based on a realistic fireground size-up—and extinguishment, then we will. If the realistic fireground size-up warrants a defensive operation, then we’re pretty good about going that way, too.
For us, we have a chief arriving shortly after the first-due companies. The second look that’s done by this chief usually confirms the decisions made by the first-due companies. There are those times that the chief’s view is different, and operations change—and that’s OK. The bottom line: We’re dealing with a vacant building, so perfect your craft but act accordingly!