Large ‘box’ buildings present special obstacles to firefighters.
With a shrinking economy creating more empty stores and warehouses throughout town, Dover’s firefighters are finding they must deal with a greater number of problems if one of those structures ever catches fire.
The biggest worry is not knowing what — or who — may be inside supposedly closed and secure buildings.
“A lot of things can go on,” said Deputy Fire Chief Sean Christiansen of the Dover Fire Department. “In a normal fire, you’ve got furnishings, clothing, etc. But if a building is closed up, we can find everything from nothing to old water heaters and vehicles being stored inside.”
Another problem is that empty buildings cannot always be monitored closely, meaning anyone, from teens using the structure for a hangout to the homeless looking for shelter, can get inside.
A good example was a fire several years ago at a supposedly abandoned market that was being used as an impromptu garage, Christiansen said.
“We even had people inside there doing repairs,” he said.
“If we’re told someone’s inside a building we thought is vacant, then life safety is involved,” Christiansen said. “We have to go inside and search. It can be very easy for firefighters inside large buildings to get disoriented and lost.”
Empty buildings prone to vandalism, crime
According to Dover Planning and Inspections Division Director Ann Marie Townshend, there are 67 buildings registered under the city’s vacant building ordinance. Inspectors are working toward a goal of thoroughly inspecting at least 16 of these each year, Townshend said in a Feb. 12 letter sent to Dover City Council’s Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee.
Townshend acknowledged her staff wants to improve enforcement of the vacant building rules.
Dover City Councilman Eugene Ruane said the city’s firefighters are worried about the growing number of empty buildings, especially large “box” facilities such as the old Sunroc plant, the recently closed Value City and Metro stores, as well as the building housing the soon-to-be-defunct Circuit City.
“These buildings present more of a risk to the fire service because of not having been occupied and being prone to vandalism, criminal activities or use by the homeless,” Ruane said.
The councilman based some of his concerns on a National Fire Protection Association report that estimates at least 6,000 firefighters are injured annually battling fires in these types of buildings.
The NFPA report points out a problem faced by city inspectors: differentiating between vacant buildings where the owners are known and can be held responsible for their upkeep, and abandoned structures where there apparently is no one the city can go to and demand they be secured.
Much of that has to do with keeping fire alarms and sprinkler systems in good repair, according to the report.
Among other concerns, the safety committee wants to see if there are ways to hold building owners responsible for keeping fire suppression systems working and for providing fire insurance coverage, Ruane said.
“I think Dover would be well advised to take a look at these provisions to see if they need to be revised,” he said. “We need to be proactive and work toward prevention rather than being caught short later.”
Weighing the risks
Fighting fires in a “box” building with large amounts of open space can be a particular challenge, said Kevin Wilson, first vice president of the Delaware Fire Fighters Association.
“The buildings themselves are generally non-combustible,” he said. “It’s what’s in there, like paper, trash or stock still inside, that burns.”
Steel truss construction often makes up most of a box building’s construction, and these beams not only bear the weight of the roof, but of heating and air conditioning systems often placed on them, said Curt Varone, director of public fire protection for the NFPA.
“Steel loses half its strength at 1,000 degrees and a typical fire will generate temperatures in excess of that,” Varone said. “That means trusses, after only five or 10 minutes exposure are in danger of collapsing.”
When fires occur in vacant structures, they can burn several minutes before being reported; that plus a response time of even less than five minutes can mean roofs in large buildings may be weakened to the point of collapse even before firefighters arrive on the scene, he said.
These situations generally mean a fire chief will take a defensive posture on a blaze, essentially dousing a fire from the outside and making sure it doesn’t spread.
But if someone could be inside, the chief then must decide on the risk of sending his men on a search and rescue mission.
That situation arose in December 1999, when six Worcester, Mass., firemen died in a vacant warehouse fire while searching for homeless persons inside.
Varone agreed with Ruane’s feeling the city of Dover needs to get ahead of the game when it comes to large, vacant structures and fire safety.
He noted some cities require building owners to pay the city a fee as long as their property stands vacant; that money can be used to help pay for inspections and keeping track of building maintenance, he said.
The safety advisory committee was to take up discussions on inspecting commercial properties, to include the vacant building ordinance, at its Feb. 24 meeting.
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