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IAAI/USFA Abandoned Building Project
Building Evaluation Presentation Outline


This lesson is intended to prepare personnel to inspect vacant or abandoned properties and identify conditions that could lead to injury or death in the event of a fire in the property. The data collected as part of the inspection can then be used as part of a pre-plan for the structure and in the decision-making process of the community regarding the allocation of resources for the mitigation of the most hazardous properties. The evaluation form developed by the IAAI/USFA Abandoned Building Project is used as the basis for the program (Attachment A). Communities that choose modify the form to meet their specific needs should make adjustments to the program to reflect the modifications. A PowerPoint presentation designed to support this lesson is also available from the IAAI and USFA.

At the completion of this program, participants will be able to

1. Describe the potential hazards that vacant properties pose to fire fighters
2. Perform an evaluation of a vacant property safely
3. Evaluate the potential for a fire in a vacant property to extend to an adjacent building
4. Evaluate the potential for a multi-room fire upon the arrival of the fire department
5. Evaluate the potential for abnormal fire development within a vacant property
6. Evaluate the potential for structural collapse early in the development of a fire in a vacant property
7. Evaluate the potential for fire fighters to become trapped or lost during fire fighting operations in a vacant property

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 there are more than 12,000 fires in these properties every year . 1 Of these fires, nearly 72% are of incendiary or suspicious origin and more that 5% are caused by children playing with matches. 2 Annually, these fires result in over 6000 firefighter injuries 3. NFPA statistics indicate 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.

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 same threat to public safety as those that are unoccupied and open to unauthorized access.

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.4 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. An important finding of the Miami University survey was that approximately one third of the communities surveyed could not provide an accurate count of the vacant or abandoned properties in their jurisdiction.

Uninhabited buildings 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 the factors that could contribute to dangerous conditions in vacant or abandoned structures and should be identified during the evaluation process. The evaluation form is designed to assist the evaluator in gathering information that can be used in the final evaluation of the hazard posed by a particular property.

Two of the thirteen recommendations of the NIOSH report on the 1999 cold storage building fire in Worcester, Massachusetts 5 related to the evaluation and marking of vacant and abandoned buildings.

Recommendation #1:
Fire departments should ensure that inspections of vacant buildings and pre-fire planning are conducted which cover all
potential hazards, structural building materials (type and age), and renovations that may be encountered during a fire, so
that the Incident Commander will have the necessary structural information to make informed decisions and implement an
appropriate plan of attack.

Recommendation #10 :
Fire departments should identify dangerous vacant buildings by affixing warning placards to entrance doorways or other
openings where fire fighters may enter.

The evaluation instrument provided with this program (Attachment A) is intended to assist communities in the inspection and evaluation of vacant and abandoned properties. The data developed during the evaluation can easily be incorporated into pre-plans for the buildings. Additional information regarding the Worcester Cold Storage fire can be found in the NIOSH report listed as a reference to this lesson.

1 "Structure Fires in Vacant or Idle Properties, or Properties under Construction, Demolition or Renovation", National Fire Protection Association, May 2000
2 ibid
3 "Patterns of Firefighter Fireground Injuries", National Fire Protection Association, February 2000
4 "Cities Begin Considering The Risk of Vacant Buildings", National Center for Policy Analysis,
5 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Six Career Fire Fighters Killed in Cold-Storage and Warehouse Building Fire- Massachusetts. NIOSH, September 27, 2000.

Lesson Plan

Time Required: 2 Hours (4 with optional activity - Attachment B)

· Building Evaluation Form
· Support slides or slides of vacant/abandoned buildings in community

· Building Construction for the Fire Service, Francis L. Brannigan
· Collapse of Burning Buildings, A Guide to Fireground Safety, Vincent Dunn
· Building Construction Related to the Fire Service, Second Edition, IFSTA
· Six Career Fire Fighters Killed in Cold-Storage and Warehouse Building Fire- Massachusetts, NIOSH Investigative Report
#99F-47, September 2000

· Introduction - Why evaluate vacant buildings?
· Safety during the evaluation process
· Building security and marking
· Evaluating Building Construction
· Evaluating the Contents
· Evaluating the Fire Potential
· Evaluating Exposures
· Identifying Hazards to Suppression Operations

· Lecture/discussion
· Optional field activity

Program Outline

I. Introduction - Why evaluate vacant buildings?

A. Vacant or abandoned - What is the difference? - Discuss the difference between a vacant and an abandoned property and the importance of early intervention in the vacancy progression to deal with the properties while a viable property owner is still available.
B. The magnitude of the problem - Discuss the statistics provided in the background section above regarding the magnitude of the problem in our cities and towns. Review the issues and statistics in your community.
C. Do you have the authority to inspect a vacant property? - Discuss the codes and ordinances that provide the authority to inspect properties the jurisdiction and the process that must be followed.

II. Safety During the Evaluation

A. Potential hazards in vacant or abandoned properties
1. Unstable structure
2. Fall and trip hazards
3. Standing water in basements
4. Vermin
5. Hazardous materials on property
6. Unauthorized occupants
7. Potential for criminal activity on property

B. Personal protective clothing and equipment
1. Hard hat
2. Gloves
3. Safety shoes or boots
4. Flashlight
5. Radio

III. Building Security and Marking

A. Why is security important
B. What methods can be used to properly secure vacant or abandoned properties - Discuss the requirements of the jurisdiction
C. Marking vacant and abandoned properties - Discuss the marking system used by the jurisdiction

IV. Evaluating the Building

A. The Objectives of a building evaluation
1. Determine if the building is secure
2. Identify hazards that require immediate corrective action
3. Evaluate the fire growth potential
a. Potential for exposure fires
b. Identify available fuel packages
c. Identify fire barriers that have been compromised
d. Identify the location and type of hazardous materials on the site
4. Evaluate the potential for structural collapse
5. Identify conditions that will be hazards to fire fighters in the event of a fire

B. Property Data
1. Owner information
2. Is the building secure? - Evaluating the security of the building and determining if there are signs of recent
3. Does the building have active utilities?
4. What was the original use of building and has it been modified for other uses?

C. Building Construction
1. Number of floors and basements
2. Structural members
3. Truss construction - Roof or floors
4. Exposed structural members - Are they exposed as part of the construction or as a result of damage to the
5. Construction of the exterior walls - Are metal tie rods (stars) used as part of the system?
6. Number and size of openings in the exterior walls - Discuss the implications of openings to timely discovery of
the fire and the potential for exposure fires.
7. Ceiling - Discuss the hazards of different ceiling configurations and the impact on fire development that the
removal of the ceiling system could have.

D. Evaluating the condition of the structure
1. What is the condition of the interior walls -Discuss how penetrations can allow fire spread from compartment to
compartment also impact the integrity of the structure.
2. What is the condition of the roof - Discuss the implications of a deteriorated roof for early collapse and risks
involved for fire fighting operations.
3. What is the overall condition of the structure - Discuss the indicators of early collapse in unstable buildings.

E. Fire Protection Systems
1. Is there an operational fire alarm system - Discuss the importance of keeping detection and alarm systems
operational if possible
2. Are there operational sprinkler or standpipe systems in the building
3. Does the condition of suppression systems to allow them to be used if supplied by the fire department

V. Fire Potential

A. Fuel Packages
1. What is a fuel package
2. The impact of the quantity and arrangement of fuel packages on fire growth
3. The impact of interior finish on fire development
4. Housekeeping

B. The configuration of the buildings interior and fire development
1. Large rooms
2. Medium size rooms
3. Small rooms
4. Interior configurations that could lead to fire fighters becoming lost under fire conditions
C. Potential for delay in fire department notification
1. Windowless building
2. Vacant properties surrounding property being evaluated
3. Remote location

VI. The Potential for Exposure Fires

A. Potential exposures
1. Location
2. Separation
3. Occupied or vacant

VII. Suppression Operations in Vacant or Abandoned Structures

A. Hazards in the building
1. Holes in floors
2. Missing stairs
3. Open shafts or pits
4. Potential for disorientation under fire conditions
B. Fire Development
1. Rapid unexpected fire development
2. Early collapse
C. Impediments to fire fighting operations
1. Delay in alarm
2. Lack of access
3. Poor water supply

VIII. Hazardous materials located on the site

A. Type
B. Quantity

IX. Conditions that Require Immediate Correction

A. Security
B. Accumulations of trash or other fuels
C. Significant hazards to public safety

X. Analysis of findings

A. Exposure potential
B. Potential for multi-room fire on arrival
C. Potential for early structural collapse
D. Hazards to fire fighting operations

XI. How is the Information Used

A. Marking the building
B. Initiating the correction of hazardous conditions
C. Pre-Fire Planning
D. Allocation of mitigation resources

Attachment A - Vacant/Abandoned Building Evaluation Form (pdf)

Building Evaluation Activity

This activity is provided as an optional element of the IAAI/USFA Vacant/Abandoned Building Evaluation program. It is intended to provide participants with hands on experience in evaluating vacant or abandoned structures using the IAAI/USFA Evaluation form.

Materials and Equipment
· Personal protective clothing
· Flashlight
· Radio
· Evaluation forms
· Graph/grid paper
· Pen or pencil
· Ruler

Preparation and Safety
Locate a vacant or abandoned building that is available for the activity. Permission from the owner should be obtained prior to entry. The lead instructor should inspect each property prior to assigning teams to a building. Buildings with significant hazards should NOT be used for this activity. An instructor equipped with a portable radio should act as safety officer while participants are operating in the building.

· Divide the group into teams of 2 to 4 participants.
· Assign two or more teams to each of the properties identified for the activity.
· Teams should be instructed to conduct an evaluation of the structure independently. Each team should complete the evaluation form and develop a sketch of the assigned building.
· Teams assigned to each building should present their findings to the group individually. Any variations in evaluations of the building should be discussed in detail and a consensus achieved.
· Continue with reports until all assigned buildings have been discussed.

Using the PowerPoint Support Slides

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.

Click here to download the powerpoint presentation (Note: over 20 Mg file)


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