When Did It Become Okay To Say ‘No’?

Dave LeBlanc reminds us that a blanket safety policy does no good when it comes to people trapped. Your sizeup is your own; no other department is going to fight this fire for you – and for the victims possibly inside.

By now many of you have read about the tragic death of an eight year old boy in Niagara Falls, New York.  The young boy was playing in a vacant building with two other boys; the eight year old was killed when he became trapped after the house caught fire.

What is at issue here is not the actions of the Niagara Falls Fire Department.  For the news account it appears as though there was no chance for them to get to the child until it was too late.  What is at issue is the running debate within the Fire Service about vacant buildings and interior operations.  There are many that believe that there is no need to search a vacant building, in fact they believe we should not even go inside these structures.

These people would have you believe that most of the hundred plus Line of Duty Deaths are a direct result of the Fire Departments operating with “wild abandon” and searching every building for victims.  That these Departments have no risk management model and are just doing things “the way we always have.”

Yet by this story we can see that not all vacant buildings are vacant.  With some minor changes in the details this could be a scenario where the first engine arrives and has no indication there is anyone inside.  They would “assume” the building is vacant, and by the standards of some they would operate from the outside so no one gets hurt.  One problem, there was someone inside.  An eight year old boy was inside playing with his friends and the house caught fire and he was killed.  How does that fit in to the “vacant buildings are vacant” thought process?

Now this is not a judgment of the NFFD.  There are not enough details in the news account to determine what they knew or found on arrival.  The little information provided did indicate that the fire was in an advanced state on arrival.

So the naysayers will say it is just one instance, one case where a vacant building wasn’t vacant.  But six months ago it was a “vacant” car dealership in California and last winter it was a “vacant” warehouse in Massachusetts.

Our charge, our basic mission statement is quite simple, to save lives and property.  Now certainly there has not been a building made that is worth the life of one fireman.  However, firemen are supposed to risk their lives to save lives.  That is a basic mission requirement.  It is certainly something the Public expects from us.

What seems to be causing the debate is when do we search?  For some reason there is a shift from allowing Officers to base their tactics on a good size up to generalizations about what our tactics should be based on preconceived notions of what we will find in certain buildings.  Why are we taking those decisions away from today’s Officers?  Are they less capable from the Officers of yesterday?

An old Chief once said, “every situation is a situation.”  It used to cause chuckles as everyone thought it was a Norm Crosby type of statement.  However, when you think about it, there is a lot of truth in that statement.  Sure, we should risk a lot to save a lot (aka a life), and risk a little to save a little (aka a building).  But those decisions need to be made by the Officers that are on scene.  Their tactics and actions need to be based on the conditions found, their experience and training.  If the Fire Service continues on its current path of generalizations about what is and isn’t occupied, it will remove this critical decision making ability from those Officers that are destined to respond to these situations.

So the next time someone says it is just a vacant building, think about young Patrick Collura and how he died last Friday in a vacant building that was on fire.

WVIB – “Family of young fire victim speaks out.”
Firefighter Nation – New York Boy Dies in Abandoned House Fire
Photos courtesy WIVB; Wayne Barrall/FITHP.net

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  • Excellent and timely. We need more national voices saying these things.

  • Bill Carey says:

    Nice work Dave.

    It is ironic how a vacant building can be quickly torn down after a tragedy.

    Bill Carey

  • ChiefReason says:

    That’s why I love ya, man.
    And the issue of “when is a vacant building vacant” continues.
    You highlight an issue that I think needs further review and that is OIC making their decisions.
    With the recent release of the NIOSH LODD on the Homewood, IL fire, how do you suppose the IC is feeling about now?
    Confirmed trapped victim, decisions made that injured one and killed another plus the victim they were trying to rescue and the report skewers the IC.
    And don’t forget we have another dynamic; survivability profiling.
    I think it’s putting the fire service between a rock and a hard place.
    And it is going to continue to cause a divide between leaders.
    Excellent observations.

  • bill noonan says:

    thanks Dave…great article….you are always gonna have those who sit on the sidelines and point fingers, most of them were don’t have the facts. Each and every job is different from plain old food on the stove to the major warehouse fully involved. Keep it up

  • Great article/post. I agree completely, societally we are using “risk management” as an excuse to avoid tough decisions and liability.

    The younger generation of firefighters will never learn to be good officers and leaders capable of making serious, life-or-death decisions if we continue down this path. The fire service is very much a monkey-see, monkey-do business, and if all they see is the IC balking at committing to a search under reasonable conditions to save a life, what are they going to learn to do???

    Let’s keep up the dialog. Some of us still have a spine, and the intestinal fortitude to use it when appropriate!

  • Ben Waller says:

    A key question in the example given is “Was there any chance of a live victim in this structure when the FD arrived?” That is more important than if the structure was supposedly vacant.

    If the structure was flashed over, collapsing, inaccessible, etc. then this is simply a tragedy about which the FD could do nothing except injure or kill members by trying a futile interior operation.

    If the structure was sound, the fire was incipient, accessibility wasn’t a problem, etc. then there’s no reason to avoid interior operations including a primary and secondary search.

    There is a great deal of information about this fire that has not yet been made public knowledge. I believe it is too early to use this fire as an example one way or the other.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:


    I used it as an example in general and not specifically, as you are right, there is not a lot of information available. However it does point out that a supposedly vacant structure was not so.

    There are some that will take only one thing away from survivability profiling and the hazards of vacant structures, that it is simply not worth the risk. The perspective I am trying to shed some light on is that it is vacant when we say it is vacant. Provided conditions allow our entry and search, then that is waht we should be doing.

    Blanket policies and generalizations do not fit well in the Fire Service. As was said, every situation is a situation and we should act accordingly.

  • Hicoor says:

    Sorry but I have to agree with Ben on this one, not enough information to be Monday night quarterbacking (and that is always a slippery slope). I’m not aware of the “blanket policies and generalizations” that you are referring too. But I can tell you that I am unwavering in my commitment to a 360, survivability profiling, risk vs. benefit thought process. I owe that to my crew and their families. Being on a department that has been through a LODD I can tell you it is a life altering event for all involved. As a side note, reported occupied fire buildings that end up empty, far outnumber the rare vacant occupied ones. Risk management is not an excuse to avoid tough decisions; on the contrary it will assist you in making those decisions. It’s not for liability purposes, but so you can look yourself in the mirror when things do go sideways as they sometimes do.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:


    Again you and Ben missed my point. I am not quarterbacking, or saying NFFD dropped the ball. I wouldn’t do that. I wasn’t there, and I am not aware of what the conditions were.

    However I am saying that this is another case of a vacant building not being vacant. My personal size up includes all the things you mention, but in conjunction with each other. I feel like the move a foot in to stop us from thinking and evaulating and in many cases write buildings off, their victims included, without completely evaluating the fire we are at.

    I am sure you experiences were life altering, we lost a guy to cancer and I know that was. Even though it isn’t the same as losing a guy in a fire. I never want to lose a fireman in a fire or at any other incident. But also want to know that we did everything we were trained an able to do to save those that needed saving. Because that is still our Number 1 priority.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    These are some thoughts shared by Mike Bricault on the topic….

    -As previously stated, the vacant building didn’t set itself on fire and those that started the fire may still be inside waiting for rescue, therefore a search must be carried out. The mantra is:
    1. Risk everything to safe a life
    2. Risk a little to save property
    3. Risk nothing for what is already gone
    -The real trick is knowing and differentiating between these tenets and not misunderstanding that taking risks does not mean acting foolishly or recklessly.
    -And I cannot overstate the point that it is not the vacant building that is injuring and killing firefighters. That blame is squarely on the shoulders of poor tactics. Don’t fear the building, fear poor tactics employed by poorly trained firefighters.
    -Standing outside of a vacant building, never attempting to enter to conduct a search and opting to park out front and operating master streams emphatically says to the public the fire dept is more concerned with suppression and not LIFE SAFETY.
    -I’m not saying to avoid or delay firefighting operations BUT our primary mission of conducting the primary search is becoming primarily overlooked. Pulling lines is a knee jerk reaction to firefighting that many do instinctively and without ever performing a true size up that includes creating an immediate rescue profile for the operation. There are times when it will be appropriate to delay suppression in favor of rescue. John Norman talks about this very idea in his book, Fire Officer’s Handbook, and calls it CONCEPT NO. 1.
    -Too many firefighters are concerned with establishing a water supply, implementing RIC, having at least tree companies on scene, back up lines stretched and starting fans BEFORE they ever consider the primary search. To many ICs and company officers are heard to utter the reactionary phrase, “Its an abandoned building so we’re not going in”. Or, “There’s nothing to save, they’re just gonna knock it down”.
    -The thought of life safety is lost on such firefighters and ICs who misunderstand the point about conducting interior operations. Until verified by INTERIOR companies, it must be assumed the fire building is occupied. Anything else is irresponsible and unprofessional.
    -Interior structural firefighting operations are not nor have they ever been about saving the fire occupancy. Interior operations are performed to facilitate the primary search and any resulting rescue.
    -Being honest with ourselves, more times than not a simple room and contents fire renders most occupancy contents unusable and permanently damaged from heat and smoke while the occupancy itself is many times left uninhabitable. Typical suppression operations for a room and contents fire will leave the occupancy uninhabitable at least until professional clean up and abatement can take place. The true property conservation aspect of fire fighting comes from the fire dept stopping the fire from spreading to the neighboring occupancy.
    -The primary search, barring structural compromise or full fire involvement, should take place immediately. Consider that most true rescues occur in the first four to five minutes of operations.
    -Allowing an abandoned building to determine whether or not firefighters search is not fulfilling our mission of LIFE SAFETY. The building is empty ONLY when interior companies have made a search and found no victims.
    -I’m a fireman and I AM my brother’s keeper.

  • Hicoor says:

    I can agree with you on the fact that a building may be neglected and abandoned by its owner but is not vacant until we determine that it is. That determination is done by a search or sifting through the rubble after it’s on the ground. I also agree we needn’t fear the building, but you damn well better respect it! Where we differ is the overstated view and blanket statement that the blame for injured and killed firefighters is “squarely on the shoulders of poor tactics…employed by poorly trained firefighters”. That statement may have validity in some cases; but “every situation is a situation” and it is irresponsible to claim that opinion as though it is fact in all cases.
    Let me clarify my position: The building and fire conditions need as quick and as thorough a read as possible within our time constraints. Determining fire and smoke location and conditions will assist us with a guess-ta-mation of survivability as well as structural integrity, which will tell us if this can be a rescue or just body recovery. Now we’re back to our risk vs. benefit question (you should read no blanket statement here, but a thoughtful assessment). The only blanket statement that we should not employ is that every building requires an interior search upon arrival.

    • Bill Carey says:

      “The building and fire conditions need as quick and as thorough a read as possible within our time constraints. Determining fire and smoke location and conditions will assist us with a guess-ta-mation of survivability as well as structural integrity, which will tell us if this can be a rescue or just body recovery.”


      Bill Carey

  • Michael Bricault says:

    -Some are still reluctant to search the abandoned structure and are basing their argument on the fact that firefighters are injured unnecessarily in these buildings.
    -That fact remains that it is unknown whether or not anyone is inside until the search is complete.
    -If the argument is that firefighters shouldn’t be running around with reckless abandon searching these abandoned structures I will submit that no firefighter should be recklessly running around the fire ground EVER.
    -The other assumption the nay sayers are making is that a fire in an abandoned building will be very advanced or fully involving the structure. This is a rather big assumption. Fire in an abandoned structure does not automatically equate to a fully involved structure fire.
    -But if the structure is fully involved then strategic decisions should be made commensurate with the conditions. Just as if the structural integrity is such that the building is falling down prior to the fire. Common sense here please. Search what can be safely searched.. duhhh.
    -But what of the newly deserted structures and homes that have been foreclosed? No one seems to be thinking about the newly abandoned structures, everyone seems to be thinking about the hundred year old run down mill that is fully involved as the worse case scenario.
    -In fact, the reality is that the “abandoned” building fire that most of us will see is the recently abandoned residential occupancy fire.
    -Advocating a search of a vacant building doesn’t mean taking foolish chances. It simply means searching the building like you would any other fire. If this translates to you to mean taking crazy chances and running around then this is the source of your trepidation and your basic search techniques should be reevaluated because there is a problem. No firefighter should be running around with reckless abandon.
    -What is being advocated is a primary search like all other fire scenarios. If you search an obviously occupied home that proves negative was that search in vain because all the occupants were out? Of course not! Yet this is the exact rational being used for an abandoned structure.
    -We search the occupied home because of the probability of someone in peril inside the occupancy. Therefore it stands to reason that someone will be inside of the vacant building. If the building is truly vacant the fire should never have started in the first place. Barring a lightning strike or mice playing with matches a fire in a vacant building starts as the direct result of human intervention. That means we know someone was recently inside the building!!!
    -So, I will reiterate, it is poor tactics that injure or kill firefighters and not the abandoned building. If the search means running around like crazy and taking foolish chances then the basic search tactics need to be reevaluated because that’s not how professionals do business. Rather, if the fire is truly and properly evaluated like any other fire, safe and effective tactics will take place and that means a primary search will happen.
    -Calculated risks not foolish chances.

  • Chad says:

    Bottom line RESCUE or RECOVERY,To search these buildings without proper man power, if something goes wrong you go from hero to zero in a split second!There is a big differnts between knowing that some one is in there and not knowing!City Officials drag their feet having these buildings torn down!The same officials who make us run with skeleton crews!Thing is our OIC is forced into making these descions and I don’t envy them!Risk management is educated russian roullet.There have been more headlines reading another fire fighter dies in vacant building than the one from Niagara Falls!A body recovery is not worth any fire fighters life!How many victims are saved in vacant buildings to how many of our fire fighters we have lost?Risk Management or Play the Odds?Debate continues.Stay Safe!

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    Funny (well not really) that you mention that Chad.

    How many Firefighters are killed while searching or operating interior? Compared to how many are kiled driving to the call, or from medical issues?

    Preventing Line of Duty Deaths affects all aspects of our job. Not just singling out one type of incident and saying it is unsafe for us to operate in it.

    Not al vacants are the run down building that has been vacant for years. In my area there are 5 or 10 houses a week going to forclosure. They end up vacant too.

    No one is advocating reckless actions.

  • Engine Captain Missouri says:

    Are we truely losing touch with reality? Profiling, risk manangement, all good stuff, but our job as a fireman and for me as a boss is to make a rapid decision based on what I see and know to be fact, through experience and formal education, knowing my district and all that stuff folks. Our job is about odds. Calculated risks are part of the oath we take. We again step back to COMMON SENSE, which is apparently is not so common. Any structure is not worth a Brother or Sister’s life, we don’t wait to search until the house is on the ground. Occupied or not, a calculated risk is when possible search, make the grab and get out, then break out your profiling charts.I have been blessed to pull civilians out of a burning structures over 28 years. I’m a Fireman, I will never place myself or my company in a no win situation. COMMON SENSE+Education+Experience = A successful tour and a smooth Job!IMHO

  • Marty Mayes says:

    The issue I have with the standard risk management model is its blanket application. We risk alot to save alot, is a generalized statement, and is very open to interpretation. What is “alot” in your community? I think most of assume a life constitutes alot but does it? When did we stop doing our jobs well? Bear with me. No one ever ask a Navy Seal to not go where the fight is. Why? Because we recognize that he is a highly trained professional and can handle his job. So why do we accept mediocrity in the fire service? If you really wish to attack the LODD issue, then we must train more and sit less. Our culture is leading us down a path filled with excuses not solutions. When one of us dies, we say “ok, lets not do that again.” But that does not address the core issue. The core issue is we are not training hard enough, we are being lazy. Stop giving lip service to the job and make yourself an elite fire combatant! Take aggressive out of your vocabulary and substitute decisive. Aggressive is an emotional response, decisive is knowledge based response. Lastly, return to your instincts. Listen to them, train away the basics and your mind will solve the complex. Let us return to doing our job, firefighting.

    • Bill Carey says:

      “Take aggressive out of your vocabulary and substitute decisive. Aggressive is an emotional response, decisive is knowledge based response.”

      Well said Marty, well said. It’s interesting that you bring up the fact that we are going down a path filled with excuses and not addressing core issues. Perhaps the very means that try to identify the issues and our own learning patterns need to be re-examined. How many years now have we had The Secret List and Near-Miss reports? Are they subtlety becoming like violent television programs, transcending violence in acceptable levels? Our younger generations of firefighters deserve a second look at our fire service education.

      Bill C.

  • Bailey says:

    Heat kills. Water saves. Put water on the fire..it Does not matter from where…and watch all these tough choices you fellas labor over get easier faster…search? sure… After the hoses are in play. Oh please someone show me how I am wrong….

  • Chris says:

    “Why are we taking those decisions away from today’s Officers? Are they less capable from the Officers of yesterday?”

    Some of them…yes. Fires are down but education is high. Today’s officers, myself included, learn from books, the web and by sitting in classes being taught by Instructors that have as little experience as they do. How do we take what we learn in class, apply it on the fireground and at the same time MAKE CRITICAL DESICIONS? Experience period. I can run a computer based scenario all day and get it right every time, because I control all the pieces. What happens when I’m now in charge of real live people that can think for themselves and can make mistakes?

    That’s a reason for policy not an excuse. Competent Officers with real world experience will help in these situations. I make these comments from my angle on the situation as a whole not specific to this story.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    Chris, Agreed! But how do you give officers experience when there is none to be had? You can’t send a guy to 20 fires if your Department only goes to 5.

    We need to develop good solid procedures, backed up with good solid training and then enforce the right and wrong with good solid discipline. So that the experience we get is the right experience. You and I both know that there are lots of folks that have “years of experience” doing it the wrong way….and the get lucky.


    Not going to disagree with you about putting the fire out, never once will I. The fires where fire attack must be abandoned for an “all hands on deck” rescue effort are few and far between.

    However with that attack should be a search. Just this we a Department missed a victim that a neighbor found near a window hours after the Department left the scene.

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