Late last month, three firefighters were killed and another was injured when a vacant rowhome partially collapsed in Baltimore, MD. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time firefighters have lost their lives while responding to a fire in a vacant building. Six firefighters died in Worcester, MA when a fire broke out in a vacant cold storage warehouse in December of 1999. In another tragic incident two firefighters lost their lives when responding to a fire in an abandoned warehouse in Chicago, IL in December of 2010. These are only a few examples, according to a 2018 NFPA report, which shows that between 2011 and 2015, fires in vacant buildings accounted for 6% of structures fires but 13% of firefighter injuries.
Whenever tragedies like these occur, everyone wants to know why and what can be done to prevent this from happening again. Often, there is not just one issue that led to the event but rather a number of shortcomings.
To help explain how situations like this can arise, and highlight the different roles and responsibilities people have, NFPA introduced in 2018, the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™. It is a comprehensive framework that identifies eight key components that must work together to help prevent loss, injury, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards. The components include the development and use of current codes, government responsibility, referenced standards, investment in safety, a skilled workforce, code compliance, preparedness and emergency response, and an informed public. A lack of attention to any one of these components results in greater risks and can create a significant safety threat.
When I think of these incidents in vacant buildings there are four main components of the ecosystem that come to mind that play major roles in reducing the risk of something like this happening: Preparedness and Emergency Response, Code Compliance, Informed Public, and Government Responsibility.
Preparedness and Emergency Response is important because it addresses the pre-planning and training responders receive. It is imperative that first responders know which buildings in their area are vacant and what the response plan is. Vacant structures can pose hazards to emergency responders as they’re no longer being properly maintained, inspected, and repaired. Structures in this type of disrepair will provide less inherent fire resistance leading to collapse earlier in a fire. This is further compounded as vacant is not synonyms with unoccupied. Left unsecured, vacant structures can present an opportunity for trespassers. These risks can only be reduced so much by pre-planning, training, and policies within the emergency response community. It takes the entire fire and life safety ecosystem working together to best address these risks.
Often, it is thought that codes and standards can address safety challenges all on their own. However, safety is a system, and each part of the system relies on the others for tragedies to be avoided. On the code side, NFPA 1, Fire Code, has requirements aimed at addressing the challenges associated with vacant buildings.
Limit fuel load: The first is limiting the fuel load. Vacant buildings are required to be clear of all combustible storage, waste, refuse, and vegetation. The idea is that even if a fire occurs in a vacant building, if there is a limited fuel load, the fire will not be able to spread due to the lack of combustibles. The second is to limit access to the structure.
Restrict access: Vacant buildings should be locked, barricaded, or secured some other way from unauthorized people entering. By limiting access to the structure, the risk of arson or accidental fire is reduced. Additionally, it reduces vandalism.
Maintain fire protection systems: The last major component of the code requirements is that all fire protection systems must be maintained in vacant buildings, unless otherwise approved by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). The idea is that if a fire were to start, the systems would help minimize the damage. If the building has a sprinkler system, the fire may be extinguished even though the building is empty. Or, if there is a fire alarm system the fire department may be notified sooner than if the system had been disabled. For more specific details of the code requirements see this blog.
As the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem shows, code requirements are not the only part of what is needed to ensure fire and life safety. The code requirements need to be adhered to and that is where code compliance comes into play. Enforcing codes and standards and ensuring ongoing inspections reduces deaths, injuries, and losses. This can be extremely challenging when it comes to vacant buildings but a strong means of enforcing the codes and standards helps mitigate building owners not complying with the requirements.
The third component of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem that can have an impact on preventing these types of incidents is an Informed Public. Many people think of a vacant building as just an empty building with minimal risk since there is no one inside. Yet, we know vacant buildings aren’t always empty which means firefighters may still need to search the building upon arrival. These buildings, if not well maintained may be more susceptible to collapse. If the public, including the building owner, understands the hazards associated with a vacant building, they are more likely to ensure they understand the need to abide by the code requirements such as keeping combustibles out of the building and ensuring unauthorized people do not access the site.
The final component of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem is government responsibility. Government has a responsibility to keep their communities safe from fire, electrical, and other hazards. They must create a policy and regulatory environment where laws, policies, and spending priorities are dictated by public safety needs. It is what the public expects. Government officials also have a duty to do all they can to keep first responders safe. Those first responders lay their lives on the line every day for the people they serve.
Like so many aspects of fire and life safety, when it comes to protecting vacant buildings, many components need to work together in order to minimize the hazards associated with these buildings. A well-functioning Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem can go a long way to better protecting the public and our first responders. Learn more about the Ecosystem at nfpa.org/ecosystem.