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Great Fire Service Debate: Vacant House Fire Operations

One of the biggest debates in recent years is what to do when encountered with a Vacant structure fire. Some are in the camp of go in every time, search every time. While others are in the camp of no entry at all in these structures. So what is the right answer? I think they are both right and they are both wrong. It all starts on the front end in my opinion. You have to get out in your district find and take a look at the vacant structures, even from a distance can tell you a lot. If you can get closer you can look at things like structural stability, evidence of “squatting”, and other hazards to firefighters. Once this is done then you can begin to make determinations and adjustments to your training, and operations. I know doing a similar survey in my old company we found several vacant homes that no matter the conditions we would not be able to enter (missing floors, unstable structural elements, hoarding conditions) so they were listed as “NO GO” , while some we decided we could search if the conditions were right. Here are some operational tips on how to handle vacant structure fires:

1. SIZE UP, SIZE UP, and SIZE UP: It sounds simple but size up really is everything. Again this starts on the front end and continues throughout the incident. This is not just a 360 (although that vital to any fire ground operation)

2. Building conditions and Fire conditions dictate everything: This goes hand in hand with size up but it is worth mentioning because it really is the back bone of everything we do. I do not care if 400 people are reported inside if the fire is advanced to a state where a victim cannot survive, the building is in a state that will not allow entry, or a combination of the two we cannot make an interior attack. The below video in the post is a good example of this. The firefighters arrived on scene to find a building fully involved. While this was a known vacant structure even if it was an occupied dwelling the fire and the building are keeping us out.

 3. Make buildings firefighter safe prior to entry: This is a personal thing of mine but again I think its vital. Plain and simple we do not want to commit firefighters to the interior without multiple exit points. This is our goal at every fire but becomes a bit more difficult in vacant structures. Most vacant are boarded up, or even secured with metal security shutters. Sending interior crews into occupancies with these in place is a death trap. If you do not have a crew on scene for removal of these devices (depending on the size of the structure and type of device more than one or two may be needed) then sending in interior crews in my opinion is irresponsible and not worth the risk.

4. We are here to save LIFE and property: Some people place the same emphasis on these two items but honestly it is time to rethink this. We should risk our lives for others; it is what we signed up for, however taking that same risk for property is not appropriate. Sure we should do our very best to save the property of citizens but in a very safe in controlled manner. I honestly think most people use the “I also signed on to save property” line use it as an excuse to fulfill their own selfish needs. I also bet you that these “property savers” have never thought of placing salvage covers over property during the firefighting portions of the incident. In fact they probably complain when asked to perform salvage. I am all for saving property but lets put it into perspective.

5. Situational awareness: Again this is like size up but it’s a little different. No matter what you decide to do keep track of yourself, your company, your task, and the conditions you are presented with. It sounds simply but lots of people are not doing it.

Here are two good articles on the subject from www.backstepfirefighter.com http://backstepfirefighter.com/2010/10/10/why-we-search-baltimore/

http://backstepfirefighter.com/2010/09/24/when-did-it-become-okay-to-say-no/

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