This week marks the 10 year anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Company fire. The tragic blaze claimed the lives of six firefighters and was the catalyst for the push to remove vacant buildings from the landscape of Worcester as well as the rest of the nation. As the fire service looks upon the tragic fire, local Worcester-area media looks at the efforts to reduce vacant buildings. Twice as many vacant buildings are listed now than five years ago when the building marking system began. The number increased substantially due to the economic collapse throughout the nation as well as an aggressive effort to identify such abandoned, derelict properties.
In an effort to stabilize its neighborhoods, Worcester City Manager Michael V. O’Brien created the Property Review Team. Composed of representatives of the police and fire departments, and a housing inspector, the PRT goes door to door looking for code violations and discovering unknown hazards. Important to firefighter safety is a building marking system to denote hazard considerations for first arriving companies and incident commanders.
Deputy Chief Timothy Gray determines the degree of marking that a structure may receive and issues one of two types of placards. Some structures, such as 19 Vinson Street, may receive a red square with a white “/” to indicate that interior firefighting operations may be conducted with extreme caution. Others, like 8 Bluff Street receive a red square and white “x”, to indicate that firefighting operations will be done from the exterior, and there will be no roof work. The plight of vacant buildings isn’t necessarily one that is a result of greedy uncaring property owners, but more of another face of the troubling economy. As noted by the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, the structures appear to be left to neglect, but in reality are a barometer of the financial distress that owners and developers are in. Some of the properties in Worcester, such as the Paris Cinema, were bought as a neighborhood investment by developers who had already made similar investments and construction in the neighborhood prior to the economic collapse. Others are in a comfortable limbo, where the cost to maintain and secure a vacant structure is considerably cheaper than demolition. The Worcester Youth Center uses part of a vacant manufacturing structure for its operations. The unused part is marked with a red “x”. When faced with the cost of $300,000 to demolish the unused part, it is easy to see why the owners would opt for property maintenance and security. It is correct that some of Worcester’s vacant structures are simply deteriorating, but Deputy Chief Gray says that all of the building owners have been cooperative and none have had to pay fines ($300/day). Even the owner of the Cold Storage and Warehouse building, who owns other Worcester properties, reportedly continues to maintain his properties. The impact and lessons from that December night are deeply embedded in the minds of Worcester’s citizens.
Worcester isn’t the only department to utilize a building marking system. The FDNY marking system uses three indicators to suggest the degree of caution that its members will operate under. Using a more liberal approach in the marking of its vacant buildings, members use spray paint to note vacant structures.
A minimum 18″ square box with the respective symbol is placed above the main entrance as well as other advantageous locations. The FDNY policy towards vacant buildings also incorporates adding information of such into its dispatch information, or CIDS (Critical Information Dispatch System). Companies that find a vacant building in their response area can add this to the CIDS information, where during an alarm, responding companies will be notified of the vacant status. [Note: RO indicates the roof has been opened]
As the economy continues to impact housing and development, the number of vacant buildings in our response area will increase. By utilizing current department and municipal resources or creating our own we can identify those structures which present the greater structural threat. Individual departments may chose to adopt an SOP or General Order that dictates the posture of first arriving companies at vacant structure fires. Other departments might operate in a ‘come-what-may’ fashion. Regardless of how you or I are supposed to work, the fact that we have valuable information about a structure must be shared with other companies or neighboring departments. Just as we would pre-plan for the fire in a day care or shopping center, marking of vacant buildings is an act of pre-planning. The process shouldn’t complicate the simple, but rather reinforce caution while performing the primary search and containing the fire.
“Six Career Fire Fighters Killed in Cold-Storage and Warehouse Building Fire – Massachusetts” NIOSH
“Firetraps across city rated ‘X’ for danger” Worcester Telegram and Gazette
“Worcester remembers” Worcester Telegram and Gazette
“Owner prays for dead” Worcester Telegram and Gazette
“Kwan owns other vacant buildings” Worcester Telegram and Gazette
“Safety is new priority” Worcester Telegram and Gazette
Housing, Nuisance Control & Property Review Team City of Worcester, MA
“Vacant Building Fires” Fire Department City of New York
“Vacant Building Fires, Apr. 2009” NFPA
“Preventing Deaths and Injuries of Fire Fighters When Fighting Fires in Unoccupied Structures” NIOSH
“‘Vacant’ Buildings?” Traditions Training
Landlord Martin Mullaney stands in front of an empty three-family house at 182 Grand St. that he says he is trying to fix. (T&G staff/PAUL KAPTEYN)
– Mullany is hoping winter is short and Wakefield stays healthy.