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Abandoned Building Project

Abandoned buildings and mortgage crisis fuel risk of jump in arson-related fires

By: Jim Murphy

Fires at abandoned and vacant buildings are killers - in more ways than one.

Not only do these blazes cause more firefighter injuries than in any other property classification, they also damage nearby homes and businesses and destroy the fabric of the community.

Whether the buildings are abandoned (when there is no viable owner) or vacant, more than 70% of the fires occurring in them are incendiary or suspicious.

Even worse, these fires caused almost 9 percent of all firefighter deaths from 1994 to 2003.

A nationwide crisis

Fire consultant and former project manager, Jon Jones, who helped develop the "Abandoned Building Project Tool Box" for the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) after six firefighters died in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse in 1999, says abandoned buildings are a growing problem in cities and towns across the country.

In March 2000, USA Today cited an Insurance Services Office (ISO) estimate that 21,000 U.S. buildings of 15,000 sq. ft. or more were vacant.

"Old mills are all over the place," Jones says. "Good-sized buildings are wide open. Once they start to deteriorate, they become big hazards and drains on the community."

Deadly for firefighters

Abandoned buildings put firefighters at extra risk, too. Stripped of wiring, pipes and other components for scrap, they often contain open shafts or pits, becoming mantraps or allowing fires to spread rapidly.

Unfortunately, most residents don't even realize there is a problem. Jones visited one colleague in a very proactive county who had no idea that abandoned buildings were sprouting like weeds in her community.

"I'm embarrassed," she told him. "I see them and it doesn't click. They're easy to drive by."

Jones agrees. "The bulk of people don't think we have a problem until they really start looking."

The toolbox, which helps communities assess the number and location of vacant/abandoned buildings, secure, inspect and evaluate them, was re-released in 2006. Combating abandoned buildings can't just be an effort by the fire department, Jones says. "It needs to be a community-wide effort to identify the buildings and decide what to do about them."

His advice? "Figure a way to do something with the buildings. Even give them to Habitat for Humanity. We've got to turn the cycle around."

Desperate times

Joe Toscano, IAAI-C.F.I., a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), the organization that developed the toolbox, and now a consultant for Chilworth Technology, Inc., says the vacant building problem is a nightmare. And it's getting worse as foreclosures and the credit crisis grow.

One of Toscano's friends in Las Vegas reported that three houses on his own block are vacant, without drapes and curtains. They're also now targets for kids, vandals, drug-users and the homeless.

"I've never seen it where people have leveraged so much," Toscano says. "The value is upside down, and they are desperate."

The problem is hitting all economic levels, Toscano says, and he sees more and more vacant houses in his own neighborhood with "no curtains, no life."

He adds: "I don't think we've seen the crest of this thing."

The situation appears dismal. In the city of Denver, for example, USA Today reports that every third block in the city has seen at least one foreclosure in the past 1 1/2 years.

"My 35 years of experience says that people will consider arson," Toscano says. "We need to prevent that.

"I don't want people to think in their wildest dreams that they can commit arson and get away with it” They need to know the penalties and risks far outweigh the advantages."

Communities must act

The toolbox is designed to help educate officials and community-based groups that you can't be non-vocal, Toscano says.

He also believes fire professionals are far better equipped to fight arson today than was possible years ago, with information about properties available online in seconds.

But as the economic crisis drags on, municipalities are cutting people, inspections and training.

"When you look at all of the issues and signs it's like the perfect storm, with lots of things converging. People and companies find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. And I think some may be factoring in whether it's worth committing arson."

"We're in uncharted territory. The industry needs to get in front of this issue and speak with one voice, that arson is not a viable solution to anyone’s economic problems," Toscano emphasizes.

To view the Abandoned Building Project Toolbox from the International Association of Arson Investigators, click here.


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