Chicago LODD and Old School Thoughts on Firefighting in “Vacant” Structures

This post is dedicated to Firefighter Edward Stringer, Firefighter Corey Ankum, those injured, their families and to the Chicago Fire Department.  RFB-KTF.

This post is written out of respect for our fallen brothers in Chicago and to all of us who respond to fires in these types of buildings.  This is NOT a commentary, only a sharing of considerations, in general, for fighting fires in vacant/abandoned buildings.

How does your department operate at vacant building fires? Do your operations change?  Does your personal mindset change?

A wall collapse that reportedly trapped and/or injured over a dozen firefighters at a vacant/ abandoned commercial building fire in Chicago has turned out to be a double Line Of Duty Death.  Numerous other firefighters were injured during the collapse and/or rescue efforts.

The topic of firefighting in so-called vacant buildings is always an interesting, and sometimes heated, kitchen table discussion.  I wanted to share some points of consideration that have been passed on to me when operating at fires in vacant buildings.

Here are three basic considerations for strategic and tactical decision making in vacant buildings:

1) Life Safety (occupants, vagrants & firefighters)

How did the fire start?  If this fire is in a truly vacant structure, theoretically utilities have been disconnected.  Though spontaneous combustion sounds good, we have to assume a person started the fire, for any number of reasons, and that a life hazard is present.  Some of these reasons may include:

  • Vagrants seeking shelter and warmth (especially in winter months)
  • Children playing with matches (we recently had the same structure burn three times, believed to be kids playing)
  • Arsonists… professional or recreational (times are tough, it’s a reality)

Always remember, we are not the judge or the jury.  Our job is to search for ANYONE who may be savable inside a burning building and rescue them.  In doing so, however, we have to ALWAYS be aware of our surroundings and the conditions.  If the building is too far gone, it’s gone.  If areas are searchable and things get too risky, be a strong enough leader to pull the plug.

2) Incident Stabilization

The best way to make a fire safer is to put it out!  There are collateral risks involved with allowing a fire to burn when it is (or was) controllable.

  • Increased risk to exposures (attached, nearby or across town (from embers))
  • Increased risk of collapse, or more catastrophic collapse
  • Increased strain on resources due to additional alarms, move-ups, etc.
  • Overall increased risk to everyone on scene due to all of the above

3) Property Conservation

Simply put…THE FIRE DEPARTMENT CANNOT AFFORD TO LET BUILDINGS BURN.  If we start letting buildings burn OR make lack luster efforts at suppressing fires, the ramifications could impact operations, politics, finances and perhaps most importantly, loss of public trust.

Not all “vacant” buildings are derelict (though some are) and likewise some buildings are simply empty but still can be occupied/ leased/ bought or whatever.  IT’S NOT OUR JOB TO THINK LIKE REAL ESTATE BROKERS, SLUMLORDS OR DEVELOPERS.  IT’S OUR JOB TO THINK LIKE FIREFIGHTERS and DO WHAT WE DO BEST which is SAVE LIVES, PUT OUT FIRE & PROTECT PROPERTY.

I know these considerations are not very creative, however they are time tested.  Also consider that things (i.e. fires) are not always black and white.

By the nature of our job, we work in the gray area.  Conditions are never ideal, information is never complete and resources are never enough. WE STILL HAVE TO GET THE JOB DONE!

We all know that firefighting is UNAVOIDABLY dangerous.  Though firefighters have been injured or worse as a result of poor decision making, sometimes we get hurt or die despite making solid decisions despite ample experience and the best information and resources available.  The best way to prevent future tragic events is to study and learn from close calls and LODD and honor those who have fallen by learning from their incident and educating ourselves and others to recognize common situations.

RIP Brothers Stringer and Ankum

Thanks and Be SAFE

1 Comment

  • Larry Jenkins, Captain (Retired) says:

    I have been saying the same thing for years. The comments are right on. Risk little to save little and risk a lot to save a lot. Sometimes no matter how right you do things, something goes wrong. Just learn something from this tragedy. Amen brothers.

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