1. To make participants
aware of the problems and hazards that vacant and abandoned buildings
represent in the community.
2. To identify strategies that communities can implement to deal with
vacant and abandoned buildings
Every fire investigator knows that vacant or abandoned buildings are a
significant public safety issue. Vacant or abandoned structures are unsightly,
attract criminal activity, and are a threat to public safety where ever
they exist. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates
that more than 6000 firefighters are injured while fighting fires in these
properties every year. NFPA statistics show that more fire fighters are
injured while operating at fires involving vacant or abandoned properties
that in any other property classification. The loss of six fire fighters
operating in a vacant property in Worcester, Massachusetts, in December
of 1999 was a tragic example of the hazards these buildings pose to communities.
While no census data
is available on vacant or abandoned buildings, researchers at Ohio's Miami
University and the University of South Carolina conducted a survey of
100 cities and estimate that more than 18 percent of urban structures
are unused. This estimate equates to thousands of building nationwide
in communities both large and small. Another source, the Insurance Services
Office, estimates there are 21,000 idle properties of 15,000 square feet
or more in the United States.1 After
the Worcester fire, many communities began exploring just how many buildings
were vacant in their jurisdiction. The results are startling: Philadelphia
reported more than 27,000 at-risk structures; in Worcester over 250 vacant
structures were identified; smaller cities like Lewiston, Maine identified
nearly 60 vacant structures.
The terms "vacant"
and "abandoned" are often used interchangeably when talking
about these buildings. There is, however, a subtle difference in the terms.
Black's Law Dictionary defines vacant as "empty; unoccupied".
The word abandon is defined as "to desert, surrender, forsake or
cede. To relinquish or give up with intent of never again resuming one's
right or interest." For buildings, the difference between vacant
and abandoned is primarily related to the availability of an owner. Unoccupied
buildings where there is a viable owner, i.e. one that is interested in
the property and easily contacted, are considered vacant. Where there
is no viable owner or an absentee landlord, the property is generally
considered abandoned. Unoccupied properties that are secure and well maintained
do not pose the threat to public safety that properties that are unoccupied
and open to unauthorized access do. Where there is no viable owner, the
property is considered abandoned. In research done on urban residential
fires, Charles Jennings describes the issue in residential neighborhoods
Abandonment of property
is the most striking indication of neighborhood decline. Large-scale
abandonment threatens the stability of neighborhoods and undermines
the value of investments made by other property owners. The literature
indicates that abandonment and decline of property can be considered
as a contagious phenomenon. Fire is intertwined with abandonment as
both a cause and an undesired side effect.
signals the end of a building's productive life. Real estate market
conditions, difficulty in obtaining financing for renovation or repair,
withdrawal of fire insurance, and declining economic fortunes of tenants
all contribute to abandonment. In declining areas, the use value of
a building will frequently exceed its market value. Any damage to the
building sufficient to vacate it can lead to abandonment by the owner.2
The issues that Jennings
describes are those that resulted in significant fire problems in cities
such as Detroit; Houston; New Haven, CT; Utica, New York; and Lawrence,
Massachusetts. For commercial or industrial properties the issue may be
that the building has reached the end of its useful lifecycle and that
it would cost more than the building is worth to improve it for continued
use. Many industrial buildings in the Northeast fit this category. Environmental
pollution and the high cost of mitigation are also factors in the abandonment
of commercial properties. Whatever the cause, these rapidly deteriorating
buildings in communities become havens for the homeless and vandals, as
well as magnets for criminal activity.
George Kelling and
Catherine Coles describe the relationship between abandonment and crime
as the "Broken Windows theory of social disorder" in their publication
Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities:3
If a factory or
office window is broken, passersby observing it will conclude that no
one cares or no one is in charge. In time, a few will begin throwing
rocks to break more windows. Soon all the windows will be broken, and
now passersby will think that, not only is no one in charge of the building,
no one is in charge of the street on which it faces.
Only the young, the
criminal, or the foolhardy have any business on an unprotected avenue,
and so more and more citizens will abandon the street to those they assume
prowl it. Small disorders lead to larger and larger ones, and perhaps
even to crime.
that are not secure - open to unauthorized entry - have a very high probability
of intentionally set fires. When fires occur in these buildings, they
present a host of unusual problems to fire fighters. Since the buildings
are uninhabited, fires may develop for significant periods of time before
they are detected and reported. The buildings may contain unprotected
hazardous materials and fuel packages that would not be found in occupied
buildings. The removal of equipment or structural components and deterioration
due to age or weather can weaken the structure causing rapid failure early
in a fire. Fire fighters may encounter open shafts, stairways, pits or
holes in floors that would not be found in occupied structures. All of
these factors contribute to the danger these structures pose to fire fighters
operating in vacant or abandoned structures.
At first glance, the
prevention of fires in vacant or abandoned properties is relatively simple.
Prevent unauthorized access in the short term, and then rehabilitate or
demolish the structure in the long term. One of the major obstacles to
preventing fires and other crime in these buildings is the cost of security
and demolition of abandoned structures. The major building and fire codes
used in the United States provide the jurisdiction with the authority
to order these actions for buildings that are hazards to public safety.
Where there is a viable owner, this action may be successful. However,
where the building is abandoned and no viable owner is available, the
responsibility reverts to the community. When many properties are involved,
the cost of dealing with the problem can be beyond the capability of most
communities. Thus, one of the key components of programs aimed at preventing
fires in uninhabited properties is the identification of an owner or responsible
party early in the vacancy cycle. While it is apparent that a community
has to know the magnitude of the problem before it can effectively deal
with it, the research from Miami University and the University of South
Carolina cited above indicates about one-third of the cities responding
to the survey were unable to provide estimates of the number of vacant
or abandoned properties. In many communities the problem is just not addressed.
Communities must know
which buildings in their jurisdiction are vacant or abandoned to take
action. A more proactive approach is to begin to track properties that
are at-risk of becoming vacant while a viable owner is still known. One
such program was initiated in the early 1980's by the city of New Haven,
Connecticut. Using funds from public and private grants, the Arson Warning
and Prevention Strategy (AWAPS) was developed. This program allowed the
community to identify properties that were at risk of becoming vacant
and intervene before abandonment.4 The
risk factors that triggered action in New Haven were
- A history of back
- Previous structural
- Unabated housing
- Unreleased liens
were then targeted for action while the owner was still available and
the property occupied. This type of action reduces the cost to the community
and places the responsibility for rehabilitation of the property or proper
security on the owner early in the cycle of deterioration.
For any program aimed at reducing fires in vacant properties to be successful,
the community must have the power to act when vacant or abandoned properties
are determined to pose a public safety risk. This power comes from the
codes and ordinances that are adopted by the jurisdiction, either at the
community or state level. In most cases the primary authority comes from
the building and fire codes that are in force in the community. There
may also be anti-blight ordnances that are adopted at the community level.
With the power to
act in place, the next step is cooperation between the various departments
within the community. The fire department responds to the fires when they
occur but may not have the authority to intervene prior to that response.
The building and health code officials are usually the primary code enforcement
authorities. Surveillance of at-risk properties is usually a function
of the police department. Funding for security measures and the demolition
or rehabilitation of abandoned properties will normally be a function
of the community development official or department. If these individual
departments in the community are not working together to deal with the
issues presented by vacant and abandoned properties, it is unlikely that
the community will be successful in dealing with the problem.
Once at-risk buildings
are identified, what can the community do to stop fires in them? An effective
program includes provisions for the inspection and evaluation of the property
early in the vacancy cycle. The courses of action available for long-term
mitigation are re-use or demolition. An evaluation can assist officials
in making a determination about the proper handling of the property. While
a vacant property is waiting for demolition or re-use, it must be properly
secured to prevent unauthorized entry.
for properties that are intact and able to be locked may be as simple
as regular surveillance by police and the owner. Where properties are
open to unauthorized entry, they must be secured. The most common method
of securing vacant and abandoned buildings is boarding them up. While
many methods and materials are used, one of the most effective and secure
methods is detailed in the United States Fire Administration's National
Arson Prevention Initiative Board Up Procedures5.
The intent of boarding up a property is the prevention of unauthorized
entry. Thus, to be effective all openings in a building must be secured.
That includes doors, windows and openings in walls that could be used
to gain access. Materials used must be strong enough to prevent access
and must be weather resistant. A surveillance program should also be coupled
with the board up process to monitor building security. Regular visual
inspections of boarded up properties by police, fire department, or neighborhood
watch groups will determine if security measures have been damaged and
In some communities,
regular high visibility surveillance is used as the short term method
of fire and crime prevention rather than boarding up the properties. While
these measures do not require the labor intensive and costly board up
process, they do require a significant commitment on the part of the police
and community groups involved in the patrol and surveillance activities.
Many communities also
use a marking system for vacant properties that are considered to be a
risk to fire fighters under fire conditions. Marking of vacant and abandoned
buildings is used to alert fire suppression personnel to the potential
hazards the buildings pose should a fire occur. The evaluation of the
building is an opportunity to rate the potential hazards and determine
if the building should be marked. For buildings that pose significant
hazards such as holes in floors, deteriorating structural members and
combustible interior finish, fire fighters may be directed to operate
from the outside in a defensive mode in all cases except were there is
known life hazard. Proper security coupled with regular surveillance is
one method of ensuring that there are no occupants in vacant buildings
that are dangerous to enter under fire conditions.
Once a building is
secured and marked, the process of seeking a long-term solution must begin.
As discussed above there are generally two routes that can be taken. The
first is re-use. If the structure is viable, it may be a candidate for
rehabilitation and sale. Other considerations for rehabilitation might
be the historical significance of the structure. To facilitate this process,
some communities publish lists of vacant properties that are available
for reuse or rehabilitation.6 Organizations such
as Habitat for Humanities, church or civic groups, or private developers
have stepped forward in communities to rehabilitate residential properties.
In Lewiston, Maine, the community used a combination of federal, local
and private funds to rehabilitate a portion of a vacant shoe mill in the
center of the community. This property now has a variety of tenants and
is a productive, viable property in a prime location within the community.
The reuse of old factories for residential, commercial, or manufacturing
occupancies is a popular trend in many old industrial communities. In
most cases these efforts are the result of a public/private partnership.
Dealing with vacant
and abandoned biddings in communities is a time -consuming and costly
undertaking. To be effective a community must address the issue from several
perspectives so that they are identified, evaluated, secured, and finally
demolished or rehabilitated. To accomplish this requires cooperation between
governmental departments, the public and, in many cases, private developers.
Where a cooperative effort is not the case, the problem of vacant and
abandoned buildings cannot be adequately addressed, and the community
will be faced with the significant hazards that these properties pose
to the safety of the public and fire fighters.
Strategies for handling vacant and abandoned buildings:
- Determine the legal
authority provided by building and fire codes and ordinances adopted
by the community.
- Develop a system
to identify at-risk properties and track those that are vacant.
- Evaluate vacant
and abandoned properties and institute a system for the buildings that
communicates potential hazards to responding fire fighters.
- Develop a marking
system for vacant and abandoned buildings.
- Enforce requirements
for the securing of vacant properties by owners.
- Initiate programs
for local government to secure abandoned properties.
- Monitor the integrity
of security provided for vacant and abandoned properties and provide
a system to initiate repairs when required.
- Identify potential
public and private funding sources that are available for securing,
rehabilitating or demolishing vacant or abandoned buildings.
- Develop programs
to identify those properties that require demolition.
- Develop programs
that assist in the rehabilitation of viable properties.
Begin Considering The Risk of Vacant Buildings", National Center
for Policy Analysis, www.ncpa.org/pd/state/pd032000e.html
2 Urban Residential Fires: An Empirical Analysis of Building Stock and
Socioeconomic Characteristics for Memphis, Tennessee. Dissertation by
Charles R. Jennings, Cornell University, August 1996.
3 Kelling, George L. and Catherine M. Coles. Fixing Broken Windows:Restoring
Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York:Touchstone, 1996.
4 " New Haven's AWPS program helps authorities pinpoint potential
hot spots", Firehouse, August 1980.
5 United States Fire Administration, National Arson Prevention Initiative,
Board Up Procedures. http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/mk-part11.pdf.
6 Vacant Buildings - Turning a problem into an opportunity,
- What are vacant/abandoned
· Building code definitions
· Black's Law definitions of vacant and abandoned. Review statistics
· 18% of urban structures unused
· More than 21,000 "idle" properties of over 15000
square feet in US
- Discuss the issues
related to vacant and abandoned properties in the community
· Review statistics
of fires in these properties each year
· About 72%
are incendiary or suspicious
· Over 5% are
set by children
· More than
6000 fire fighter injuries each year involving these properties
· A significant
threat of fatal injuries such as the deaths of six fire fighters in
a vacant property in Worcester,
Massachusetts, in 1999
· Vacant properties a contagious phenomenon
· Rats and vermin
trash - unsightly and a potential fuel source for fires
- How can a community
deal with vacant properties?
· Team work and cooperation is essential
· Know the problem
· Identify vacant
· Look for early
warning signs before properties become vacant
· Attempt to
· Evaluate the building
· Secure the building to prevent unauthorized access
· Provide surveillance to monitor security
· Mark the building to alert fire fighters
· Determine if the building is a viable candidate for reuse or
· Schedule for demolition if it is not reusable
- Where does the
money come from?
· Federal funds
· Local funding
· Private involvement
- What can you do?
· Report vacant properties
· Report unauthorized entry into vacant properties
· Support the enactment of anti-blight ordinances in the community
Using the PowerPoint
The PowerPoint support
slides provided with this lesson plan are intended to provide a graphical
element to this presentation. While the talk can be delivered without
the slides, seeing examples of what is being discussed will make a lasting
impression on the audience.
The PowerPoint file
can be projected using a computer and projector or the slides can be printed
as transparencies. The presenter can use the features provided with PowerPoint
to provide handouts to the participants by printing the Handout view from
the file. Presenters should also review the Notes view of the file as
additional information regarding most of the slides is provided.
For those with the
capability, photos of buildings and issues from the local community can
be easily added to the program to customize the program.
here to download the powerpoint presentation (Note: over 20 Mg file)