Why We Search: Inside Vegas Squatter Complex


Squatters taking over apartment complex






An abandoned apartment building in Las Vegas was the site of two fires in 24 hours. Even though the structure was boarded up, squatters were still able to gain access and as one squatter told a local reporter, “do what we gotta do to stay warm.”



We would be foolish to believe that security measures would keep the homeless and others out of abandoned buildings. Whether they seek shelter from the weather or need an inconspicuous place to get their fix, have sex or anything else, vagrants will find a way inside these buildings. Let us also remember that some homeless people will also use them as shelter, a fixed address of convenience.  Kids will sometimes be in them, crime victims too.


There is a continual tirade within the fire service based on the definition of and assumption of risk. Some believe that in order to keep everyone safe blanket guidance must be accepted, that you have to accept the point of view or else you are part of the reason why firefighters are being killed each year (a complete fallacy by the way). They write off buildings and the survivability of anyone possibly inside with the first glance of a scene or the first part of a description; “vacant”, “abandoned”.

This is not trying to keep us safe. Instead it is being subversive towards the mission of all fire departments, the protection of life and property. Everyone I know who with some regularity responds to fires in abandoned buildings will tell you that they do not operate in a reckless manner but instead operate based on the situation seen when they arrive. Their actions at each fire in these structures are done according to what can be safely carried out according to the conditions presented. That is the key that many firefighters miss, “according to conditions presented.” Isn’t that what we do at ‘regular’ structure fires? We don’t write off the rancher, the Cape Cod or the garden-style apartment unless fire conditions and resources lead us to that decision. So why do some write off a building based on the words ‘vacant’ or ‘abandoned’? Fear


We cannot operate in a sense of overwhelming fear, where every single scene could be one where someone doesn’t go home. A healthy amount, an amount that would lead you to be more observant, more considerate of the actions you and others are about to take is proper, but to give up on doing what may be possible with your resources is to give up on your mission.


The fire service is experiencing a great turn-around regarding line of duty deaths involving vacant or abandoned structures. You may not be aware of it due other issues being pushed but we had ZERO firefighter fatalities in these structures in 2014. Barring any tragedy in the next 29 days we will have just one fatality this year, one which is only associated with an abandoned building and not involving a fire inside. Obviously we can say that awareness and safety lessons on this subject have helped reduce these fatalities. We may not be able to qualify it but we could certainly say that lessons from the past have had a positive impact and that we still need to share those lessons.


With those lessons we need to incorporate the fact that the problem, people inside these structures, is not going away. Stories of squatters being rescued do not negate the lessons just like a reduction in fires does not negate the need to train. Get out and on the streets of your first-due area, your battalion or response area and look for these structures. When you find them, ask neighbors if they notice squatter activity. Look over the buildings and discuss what YOUR operations, YOUR intentions would be. Share the details with other firefighters and other companies. Take what you have found and present it to your city officials, your community groups to empower them to deal with these structures either with renovation or demolition.


Don’t be scared. Be aware.


Photo courtesy of Google maps



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BillCareyBioPicBill 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 nominated for a 2014 Neal Award for Best Subject-Related Series.

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