Abandoned structures are a part of almost every community in this country. But abandoned and vacant are two very different things. If you work in any urban, and most metro areas, you have more than likely heard something similar to this statement on your radio. “Fire reported in a vacant house.” To some firefighters, like me, this statement means absolutely nothing. I step off the truck with the mindset that every tenable space within that structure needs to be searched. My mindset is not shared by everyone. Just peek in on any hot topic social media post regarding risk/reward, and look at the division. To me it’s always been simple, abandoned structures have been deserted by the owners and left to decay, and vacant structures are not occupied. These are two completely different things and unless you have a search minded culture, the lines between the two could blur and you could develop a “vacant mindset.”
The vacant mindset is a predisposition to write off a structure, and any potential victims, based on cosmetics, and unconfirmed reports. The 911 caller, police, family, or bystanders do not determine if a structure is vacant. The fire department does. This mindset is responsible for many body recoveries in our profession. Imagine you are dispatched to an overturned vehicle and en route it’s reported that the occupant has left the scene. Does your thought process change? Are you still thinking about extrication and patient care, or are you just ready to get back to dinner? Now you’ve arrived on scene, no hustle, no concern for the occupant’s safety because someone else told you everything was ok. It’s too bad the driver was ejected and is laying critically injured in the trees. Sure, you found them eventually, but was it too late? Did we do our due diligence? Let’s apply this to a structure fire. Open up your internet search engine and type these words, “died in vacant fire.” People die in structures thought to be vacant all the time. The report of vacant or abandoned structure should not change your game plan. Many firefighters will tell you stories of fires in boarded up homes with no power or water that have an entire family living in it. Do they not get the same treatment we give to reports of a person trapped? Now search, “rescued from vacant fire.” It’s astounding the amount of people we save from abandoned structures we incorrectly label as vacant. A lot of departments have a great search culture and the word vacant is ignored until a search has been completed. Kudos to you guys, you are giving the citizens what they expect.
Now on to the worst part of a vacant mindset. Just let it burn. This is an unacceptable statement for a public servant who is sworn to duty. Think bigger than the fire in this old ugly building. Could this be a crime scene? Is evidence pertinent to solving a murder in that house? You don’t know until you know. Every fire should be extinguished, investigated, and end with a debriefing. Now, I know I have rustled the feathers of a few. My opinions are not meant to demand we rush into every inferno and beat our chest like fools. We still need to gather information on scene, choose a tactic and accomplish our mission as safely as possible. But, we should keep in mind that vacant is a powerful word on the fire ground. It changes tactics, skews our risk/reward assessment, and removes hope for those we swore to protect.
In this next set of photos there are several people living inside one of the structures. Assume you are a civilian driving to work at 5:00 A.M. when you see smoke and fire from either of these structures. You call 911 and the dispatcher ask if the building looks occupied. What would you, as a regular civilian, say to them?
The structure on the left is an unoccupied home. The one on the right has people in and out of it all night and day. So why would we take someone else's word for it? We have to give everyone a shot at life, regardless of color, religion, financial status, or perception of worth. That is our job, and that is what the citizens expect from the fire department.