Marking Death Traps: The Increasing Numbers Of Vacant & Abandoned Buildings…

Posted: April 11, 2016 in News, Roof, Uncategorized


By Brian Butler (This is an extended post to the article in Firehouse Magazine March 2018 Issue (pg 66)

With the recent rapid decline in our economy during the last several years including the increased epidemic of homelessness, we are seeing a large increase in hazardous vacant, abandoned and dilapidated structures in our urban and industrial areas.

These structures are usually taken over by vagrants, vandals, gang members, drug users and copper thieves. The boarded up doors and windows are no match for squatters who easily remove the board ups and occupy these abandoned buildings. The age and neglect of these structures are further damaged by weather, especially in the northeast where rain snow and cold weather penetrate open doors, windows, and roofs. These buildings are loaded with combustible trash and clothing when occupied by squatters and are targets for arsonists and thieves who steal aluminum siding, copper pipes, furnaces etc… Others use the building for shelter during freezing weather using small fires inside for heat. These buildings are becoming death traps for firefighters across the U.S.

More firefighters are injured in vacant buildings than any other property according to the NFPA. There are many dangers that contribute to those statistics such as delayed discovery, holes in the floors, missing stairs, hoarding conditions and collapse to name a few. It’s important that these buildings are marked to identify them as hazardous.


While driver training or returning from a call, take notice of these buildings and inspect them. Go out on a Sunday or training day and look for these buildings that your company members will be responding to. A placard and a can of spray paint is inexpensive and just may save the life of a firefighter someday.

The IFC (International Fire Code) provides a guideline for marking vacant structures. Your department may have an SOP/SOG that provides information similar to the IBC.

*A placard with an open square: Normal structural conditions at time of inspection.

*A placard with a single diagonal slash: There are interior hazards to the building and interior operations should only be considered with extreme caution.

*A placard with an ‘X’ in the square: Significant structural deficiencies in the building. Exterior firefighting operations only UNLESS a known life hazard exists.

Other marking systems are similar to the IBC with additional identification “R/O” (Roof Open) or “F/O” (Floor Open) to identify the absence of a floor.

The following buildings (13) below were all identified in just a two block radius in a city with over 6000 vacant structures per 7.5 square miles.

This structure above didn’t look as bad from the front as it did from the D and C side. From the front, you couldn’t see any signs of an open roof or partial collapse in the rear. The rear of these buildings are usually where vagrant traffic comes in and out.

Be cautious marking hazardous abandoned buildings where unpredictable trespassing vagrants high on drugs are present. They may act hostile towards firefighters inspecting the property.

If there are piles of trash in the alley between the homes , there’s plenty of combustible trash inside as well. Watch for needles as these properties are a haven for drug users.

Mark buildings on one way streets in the direction of travel so they are more visible to first due companies. Marking the boarded up doors should be secondary as they can be removed/replaced. ID the building wall if possible.

Open windows will produce rotted floor decking over time. Rain and snow makes its way in through openings and weakens the floor. Vacant buildings with prior fires should still be marked. This “occupied vacant” (pictured right) had 3 fires before finally going through the roof before it was finally demolished.

When doing inspections for dangerous buildings in your district, make sure the rear is inspected. What may look acceptable from the front can be disastrous in the back. When you see high weeds, littered piles of trash and even trees growing out of the home, chances are it’s a hazardous building. The reasons many of these homes are not demolished are usually due to a lack of funding to do so, or a problem involving the owner of the property.

Mark these dangerous buildings according to your SOP/SOG’s or local AHJ and stay safe!



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