By Jamie Thompson
Photo Tod Parker/Phototac.com
Indianapolis firefighters tackle a fire at vacant house in 2006.
Fire departments are already feeling the effect of spiraling foreclosures, with lower tax revenues causing shrinking budgets.
But as more people lose their homes, a host of even more direct challenges impact firefighters, such as fires in abandoned properties.
The effects of foreclosures on the fire service were among a range of issues detailed in a report — the Urban Fire Safety Project — released by the NFPA in November last year.
Looking at the challenges associated with reducing/eliminating deaths and injuries among high-risk populations, it outlined a series of recommended strategies for fire chiefs in urban areas — including how to address the fire hazards that can result from foreclosures.
As part of the project, the Columbus, Ohio, Fire Department was selected to follow three of the report's recommendations since the start of this year.
"One of the strategies we chose to follow was tackling the foreclosure problem," Columbus Fire Chief Ned Pettus Jr. said.
"We identified it as an issue last year and it's been reported to me that it has continued to grow in both Columbus and Ohio."
Fire department challenges
The NFPA report outlined four main issues for fire departments as a result of foreclosures:
1) People move in with other family or friends, which can mean overcrowding and people living and sleeping in parts of the home that are not meant for sleeping rooms, such as basements and attics, that do not have two ways of egress and that are often heated with unsafe appliances.
2) Homelessness increases, leading to more people living in unsafe housing conditions.
3) More abandoned homes can lead to homeless people living in those homes or children vandalizing or playing in abandoned homes. These structures present additional hazards to firefighters and contribute to the juvenile firesetter problem.
4) In colder climates, abandoned homes must be kept heated and therefore invite squatters and drug dealers to use these buildings illegally. When these buildings are involved in fire, the risk of serious injury to fire personnel increases.
The resulting recommendation — which Columbus is following — suggests local fire departments and the national fire service should partner both nationally and locally with lending institutions and housing and community organizations to develop strategies to prevent home foreclosures and abandoning of homes.
"It's about working with organizations, letting them know the concerns of the fire department and how foreclosures and vacant homes generally may affect fire and arson rates, and going through these four points," said Sharon Gamache, NFPA director of high-risk outreach programs.
The Columbus Fire Department, with its involvement in the project, is setting an example of how departments can be proactive.
"We are working with several organizations on the foreclosure issue, particularly as it relates to abandoned and vacant properties," Chief Pettus said.
As part of its efforts, the department has begun playing an active role in ReBuild Ohio, a consortium of local government, nonprofit and civic organizations concerned with the debilitating effects of vacant and abandoned property in the city.
Chief Pettus said one of his public education officers has even joined the board of an Ohio lender's group
"They were extremely surprised that he wanted to join as they hadn't previously considered the impacts on fire departments of these vacant buildings," he said.
"But we have serious concern about the safety of personnel responding to these vacant and abandoned properties, where often the structural integrity has been compromised."
In the past few months, the department has implemented several procedures to tackle the problem. Chief Pettus said a safety officer has begun categorizing those buildings certified as abandoned and vacant, and arranging from them to be tagged with appropriate signage.
"It means responders will know when they pull up outside if a building is abandoned and vacant, and to avoid putting lives at risk by going in unless they have reason to believe that a rescue is necessary."
To reflect this, Chief Pettus said the department has updated its relevant SOPs.
"We want to ensure the safety our responders," he said. "We want them to use extreme caution and to conduct interior operations only when they see signs or indications that a rescue may be necessary and that they can safely conduct these operations."