Why We Search: Squatters Still Here


The latest on people turning up in vacant structure fires




Fall fades towards winter and as it does the homeless typically turn toward vacant or abandoned structures for shelter from the coming cold. If you have paid any attention to long-range weather forecasts you have probably heard that this year’s El Nino is expected to be the worst on record bringing everyone an extremely wet winter. Whether or not that develops as projected we all are aware that vagrants and others take up residence in long-empty structures at any point between Indian summers and blizzard conditions.

Across the country fire departments and municipalities are continuing to respond to fires in vacant structures as well as deal with the alarms and neighborhood blight. Various efforts range from identifying such structures to funding their demolition. Recent examples of each are below.


Squatter House Fire on the Big Island
Firefighters in Hilo, Hawaii responded to a house fire on 19 November. Police officers had removed two of three squatters who were inside the house before firefighters arrived.

Mayday at Vacant Los Angeles Duplex Fire
On 18 November two Los Angeles City firefighters were injured while battling a fire inside a vacant duplex in the Koreatown neighborhood. A section of the first floor collapsed causing the mayday and activation of the rapid intervention companies.

Man Injured in Cincinnati Fire
Cincinnati firefighters found a squatter on the third floor of a vacant house in the Sedamsville neighborhood on 8 November. He was transported to a local hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.


Addressing Vacant and Abandoned Properties

southbendprojectIn South Bend, Indiana the city created the ‘1,000 Homes 1,000 Days’ project to either demolish or rehabilitate at least 1,000 structures in the city. A total of 1,057 properties were identified in an effort that involved the support in input of South Bend’s citizens. Over 400 houses have been repaired, over 500 demolished and another 60 scheduled to be demolished. Since the beginning of the program the percentage of vacant building fires has dropped 18%.

Detroit, the always popular fire buff location, has seen a significant reduction in fires during the Devil’s Night/Angels’ Night period every October. Over 4,000 people participated in this year’s effort to prevent and report fires and suspicious activity. The city also enacted a curfew for juveniles. Only 52 fires were reported in the four-day period, down remarkable from 97 last year.

Philadelphia reached a significant period in their Land Bank program in November. The program that started in 2013 identifies vacant city-owned properties in an effort to recycle them into either affordable and productive residential and commercial properties or environmental green spaces. By the end of this year over 200 properties will be reused or in a process of transferring ownership. In the case of vacant lots, neighboring homeowners may be able to receive the lot as a side yard. The program seeks to identify and transfer at least 2,000 properties by 2018.


Doing it Wrong

Opposite of the good efforts to identify and remove vacant and abandoned structures, four Pennsylvania volunteer firefighters recently admitted to being involved in setting fire to two vacant structures. The criminal complaint of the first fire stated that the alleged arsonist said it had been awhile since his department had a fire and that the structure involved was an eyesore in the community. In the second fire, three members of a different department discussed setting fire to a vacant structure so they could respond to it and fight the fire.

This is not a new occurrence. Such structures have been the target of opportunity for other firefighters who decided that the thrill of the run was more important than the safety of their fellow firefighters. Instead of seeking ways to properly use vacant and abandoned structures as acquired buildings for learning, the selfish ease of lighting a fire ruins it all for everyone.


Anomaly or Reassurance?

Sometimes an occasional reader will comment that highlighting rescues from vacant/abandoned building fires is calling attention to anomalies, rare occurrences when considered with the many other structure fires thousands of fire departments respond to each day. That is correct but only in one dimension. Ever since we have been writing on the subject ‘Why We Search’ we have also included instances where departments and municipalities have taken a proactive stance toward this fire problem. From identifying and marking such structures to creating and enforcing legislation to have them removed, we have called attention to these works as well. They are perhaps needing greater attention than the rescue stories because, as we have mentioned before, the safest vacant is a demolished vacant. Unfortunately some readers miss this and only see one side of the subject.

Part of that may be due to the hype or fear that comes with any news of a firefighter injured while working at a vacant structure fire. Online socially comments of “let it burn”, “surround and drown” and “risk nothing to save nothing” pile on top of each other when the news breaks. In some cases even an article or two in our trade magazines will take on the subject and include a number of injuries or fatalities that in closer investigation is either not entirely correct or, sadly, completely made up.

Operating in a subliminal state of fear can be debilitating, especially when the nature of your operations are inherently dangerous. Through investigating and understating the subject you can be better informed about what you face. Some departments may face less than half a dozen of these fires in a year. Others may face that many in a single week. Regardless of your activity, it is important that your department and municipality identify these structures and be on the same game plan when facing a fire in them. Awareness includes understanding not just the physical condition but being aware that there may be lives inside that rely on your education, training, size-up and resources to affect a safe search and fire attack as conditions allow. Being scared of a vacant building is not a life-preserving strategy. Take the time to identify them in your response area and review what your operations and expectations should be.


Video image courtesy of FireLensMan on YouTube. Graphic courtesy of City of South Bend, Indiana.


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BioPicBill Carey is the online public safety news and blog manager with PennWell Public Safety, or more specifically FireRescue Magazine/FirefighterNation.com, JEMS.com, and FireEMSBlogs.com. Bill started in the fire service, as a third generation firefighter in 1986, on the eastern shore of Maryland and then continued after moving to Prince George’s County. He served as a volunteer sergeant and lieutenant at Hyattsville. Bill’s writing has been on Firehouse.com, Fire Engineering, FireRescue Magazine, FirefighterNation.com, the Jones and Bartlett 2010 edition of “Fire Officer: Principles and Practice”, The Secret List and Tinhelmet.com. His recent writing on firefighter behavioral health was been nominated for 2014 Neal Award for Best Subject-Related Series.

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  • Michael Furci says:

    Love “Why We Search”. We have had several fatalities in vacant structures over the 15 years I’ve been a firefighter in Lorain, Ohio. Since nobody knows for sure if there is a life inside a structure, it is our duty to search.

  • Eric says:

    “Operating in a subliminal state of fear can be debilitating, especially when the nature of your operations are inherently dangerous.”

    Excellent quote!

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