What if structures could talk? Would they ask rhetorical questions like, “Does this plywood make me look vacant?” knowing all along that there are people inside? In the urban environment, it is not wise to assume that boarded-up or “secured” structures are vacant. These types of structures may be houses in a neighborhood, stores that have been closed, or manufacturing plants that are no longer operational. Many city codes require that the property owners to “secure” the property. Owners do what they have to do knowing that there is no perfect system.
A house may have plywood or oriented strand board nailed over the windows and doors. A store or industrial building might have commercially available systems that cover the windows and doors. This exterior camouflage is exactly what potential occupants are looking for. I have never seen a “secured” property that someone with the will and enough time couldn’t get into. All too often, there is a way into the structure that may not be obvious to us while driving by.
The word vacant in the fire service has taken on a life of its own. As it relates to a structure, it means that the structure is unoccupied by human inhabitants. Many departments have generalized the term vacant. I have even seen research papers on vacant structures and the correlation to firefighter injuries. Unfortunately, this has added to the developing risk-aversion culture that tends to generalize most everything. I have been guilty of misusing the term because of a normalization of deviance. It’s easy to just say “we have a vacant structure.”
“Vacant” for the fire service now has several different meanings. It describes the appearance of the structure to some, it means that no one is currently paying rent or a house payment to others, and in some areas it means an old dilapidated structure that has weeds growing out of the siding.
In many urban areas, an unoccupied structure is extremely rare. Most structures are occupied by someone for part of the day or night even if they are not supposed to be there. In many cases, these structures are likely to have fires and trapped individuals. These structures typically have no power or gas (unless it’s being stolen), so you have to ask, “How did the fire start?” The answer is that someone was conducting secret experiments in there and concocted a procedure of combining heat, fuel, and oxygen that spurred a chain reaction that began causing rapid oxidation. If there was no one in the structure and there is no lightning storm, then it could be possible that other pyrolytic conditions are present. It could be that magical forces were at work. If you discover this is the case, I do not recommend attacking the fire. More often than not, someone in the structure was engaged in highly technical activities like staying warm, cooking drugs, retaliating against others, or just screwing around with fire.
I propose banning the use of “vacant structure” from fire service terminology prior to a primary and secondary search by the fire department. I am in favor of identifying buildings that may be structurally unsound as “high risk or structurally unsound” but not “vacant.” Flag them in your computer-aided design system, put big signs on the exterior, or use code enforcement to get them torn down, but don’t label them vacant. It is our job to determine if a structure is or is not occupied when there is a fire. The fire department does not make rescue decisions based on the economic status of the individual. A life is a life. The determination of when to “go or not go” should not be based on a self-imposed classification of the structure as “vacant.” If the structural integrity is compromised beyond your risk-management level of acceptance in a pretty house, you should not go. If the structural integrity is not compromised beyond your risk-management level in an ugly, boarded up structure, GO!
The overall victim survivability and structural risk profile is the determining factor for “go or no go” once on scene. Front loading a perception of “vacant” has a harmful side effect of creating a nonchalant, slow, not a big deal, “just another vacant structure” mentality. All the while, someone may be dying inside.
One of my crews rescued a 60-something-year-old man from a structure that the initial crews took for “vacant” based on assumptions-not evaluations. These initial crews operated in the exterior defensive mode for more than 25 minutes because of our overemphasis on the term “vacant.” This perception was further reinforced as it was dispatched as a “vacant structure on fire.” When we arrived, we could see areas of the structure that we determined could be and needed to be searched. Just two rooms were survivable but the house, despite some heavy fire in three rooms and the attic, was not falling in or rotting.
I asked command to change from defensive to offensive based on our assessment and, sure enough, a victim was rescued and he lived. In fact, he only spent one night in the hospital and was released. Had we continued with the exterior fire streams, the attic would have eventually burned off, causing a ceiling collapse that, along with the long-term carbon monoxide poisoning, would have undoubtedly killed the individual.
The Value of All Life
A few departments have taken the “vacant” terminology so far that no one is allowed in this type of department-classified occupancy even for a small, incipient fire. Again, if you have a process that identifies dilapidated, structurally unsound buildings that are not safe to be in, whether they are on fire or not, that is commendable and very valuable information that should be considered in the decision-making process. However, it should not be an automatic write-off of someone inside. Please train your members and command staff to recognize risks and to continue to risk a lot when there is a life in danger and to take calculated risks in determining the possibility of occupants.
In many cases, these types of structures are well involved and the risk management profile is such that only one or two rooms are survivable. This is a perfect vent-enter-search opportunity or, at a minimum, at least a time to take the window and look inside with your thermal imaging camera. You would do the same at a house or building without plywood on the windows ... at least I hope so for the sake and future of our fire service. Please get rid of the term “vacant” on the front end of any incident and use the term “all clear” after you have completed your search.