Vacant building fires: Nothing is ‘always’ on this job

There’s no place for sweeping generalizations during go/no-go decisions on the fireground


I spend a lot of time observing, aka people-watching. Anywhere, any time – stores, malls, beach, neighborhood pool, streets, whatever. I think most of us do, although my wife, Teri, says I should be far less obvious about it. I don't agree. If I wanna stare, I will stare; that's why I have sunglasses.

I also like to watch (with intentional self-control) what people are “putting out there” online, and lately, there has been a lot of chatter related to firefighting and searching in vacant buildings.

One example: Someone reacted negatively on social media to a post by retired FDNY Deputy Chief Vinny Dunn, author, instructor and world-recognized subject-matter expert, who stated that, “as an incident commander for over 25 years in New York City who fought many vacant building fires, I never found a dead squatter in a vacant building after a fire."

Of course, that doesn't mean there haven't been other fires where searches were done and rescues were made, whether in NYC or anywhere else. It means that it is what Chief Dunn has experienced as a seasoned boss and something we should keep in mind when making fireground decisions. Why? Because as we should know by now, nothing is "always" on this job, and it's definitely not black or white when responding to fires. Really the only things all fire departments have in common are size-up, determining your conditions, and applying the immediately available resources.

Everything else depends.

"The most important thing – and something we should keep in mind when making fireground decisions – is nothing is 'always' on this job," writes Goldfeder. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Decision-making divergence

Let me break it down so you can understand why there really is no "always" in fireground decision-making. Consider these factors:

  • 911 call-handling time: Do your dispatchers spend 3-4 minutes wasting time by asking unnecessary questions before your alarm is activated? IMO, this is all we need: Where is it? What is it? What's your phone number? Then activate the damn fire department, then continue asking all the questions. Runs can be upgraded or downgraded by the responding boss as needed.
  • Dispatch time: How long does it take from the time the basic questions are asked to the time your department is alerted? You'd be surprised. Forget CAD printouts; they are only as good as whoever hits the keyboard whenever. Go listen to the raw audio tapes at your local center to determine exactly how long it takes from a dispatcher answering the 911 call until your department is activated.
  • Turn out time: Are you a staffed department? Do your members take way too long to get on the rigs? Are your members responding to quarters? There is a huge life-costing difference when your firehouse is unstaffed.
  • Turn out staffing: How many interior firefighting members are on the rigs on your first alarm – 3, 4, 12, 25, 30? When you look at the tasks needed on a small (1,200-square-foot) dwelling fire, you need between 20-25 members quickly to do what we do simultaneously. Consider water supply, pumping, stretching three lines minimally, ladder throws, forcible entry, and search and rescue – you know, all the stuff we do. The fire could care less if you take a minute or 30 minutes to arrive. But the people in the house care a lot.
  • Response time and your first-alarm time and distance: How far are you from the fire? In cities, it's a few blocks. In suburbia, a few miles. In rural areas, a while – a long while. Wherever your people live, they should be well informed on when they can expect your fire department to arrive with a crew and bosses that have a clue.
  • First-alarm resources: What are you sending? Do you genuinely use automatic mutual-aid or do you wait until you get to the fire. Do you use "personality-based mutual aid” – you know, IOW you call FDs you like instead of the ones you don't like. I'm not talking about calling the closest, most appropriate FD when you need special equipment. I am talking about calling "those bastards" in the next community because they can deliver firefighters quickly, even if their chief is married to your ex-wife, husband or both. Get over it.
  • Training for members on the first alarm: What are the qualifications, training and attitude of responding members? Are the rigs arriving with people with barely-there pulses or firefighters who do as directed, take training seriously and are glad to be there?

My point: In North America, if you've seen ONE fire department, you have only seen ONE fire department. Like it or not, that's just the way it is. Nothing is the same from community to community and nothing is “always.”

Go/no-go decisions

Getting back to where we started – the recent discussions about abandoned, vacant and derelict (AVD) building fires, and whether members should search. To me, it is simple: Based upon your department policies and training, along with the chief of department’s clear expectations, you do as you are trained and directed. It depends on your size-up, conditions on scene, and immediately available resources. More specifically, every fire needs a size-up, but that action can only be applied based upon conditions and especially immediately available resources. Everything else, including our ability to do what the occupants need, depends on these factors.

So, who makes the go/no-go decision? The first-arriving company officer or the on-scene chief. It starts there, and they are held accountable to own their decisions. The good ones understand that and do. I have found that the more experienced, trained and "into the job" fire officers – the ones who have had command of critical incidents – will consider all aspects of the go/no-go decision throughout the incident, always based upon – say it with me – size up, conditions and resources.

Keep in mind that we spend a lot of time getting fire officers to understand that there are no clear-cut answers. That can be a hard to grasp when the IC could be anyone from a solid, experienced veteran member to a first-arriving brand-new company officer or even a firefighter “riding up” with zero command-related experience. Regardless, all these fireground decisions are belong to them, and they have a lot to consider.

If your first alarm has 20-30 good people, they can do more, often simultaneously – much more than if they have 4-6 people. It’s simple math. Remember the tasks, prioritized based upon size-up. Often, water on the fire quickly is the best solution. That is not something new, been around forever. But not always, as there are occasions where we may need to do something else first, maybe search and rescue of a visible victim. But again, that depends on the boss’s size-up, and what the boss decides – even if you are the boss. And we then do as ordered.

A friend of mine (a gray-haired veteran metro chief) recently commented to me that somewhere along the way, we developed a sense that we had to be in bed with fire before putting it out. I remember when I was taught that. It was in the early 70s at the Nassau County (N.Y.) Fire Academy where a chief instructor made this very clear: "DO NOT open that nozzle until you see the fire" – and that was state-of-the-art training back then. We didn't want to disturb the "thermal balance." Fast forward to 2022, and UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute team has taught us that water quickly with the right technique won’t disturb the thermal layer as much as we thought and will improve conditions.

Nothing is always.

Search mentality

I, like all of you, have observed firefighters "getting in there" with seemingly no command structure. A free for all. You know it, I know it. Playground vs. fireground. It's the "we do what we want at Engine Co. 12345" attitude because you suck and we don't.

Look, I love high-spirited companies – those that do as trained, ordered and expected. It's the ones that do whatever they want that gets members hurt and killed. Read the reports. Read the accounts. Listen to the "been there/done that" podcasts like the NFFF "IC to IC" programs. Speak to ICs who have lost firefighters under their command – a position no one wants to be in. And the outcomes? More often than not, they would do it differently. That's not my words, that is their words. Time and time again.

But all those lessons seem to disappear when we operate in an environment or a culture that promotes mentalities like "beat the other company,” “get in there no matter what,” “we do what we want at this truck company" and "there could always be people in there" – the "playground" vs. the strongly lead and disciplined fireground environment and culture. If the size-up indicates that someone could be in there, and the conditions allow for a rapidly calculated risky decision by a seasoned and experienced and disciplined IC, then sending members in is the decision.

This isn’t “social media firefighting”

When browsing social media, beware of those commenting about something they know little about, that is, being genuinely, legally and proven responsible for a fire’s outcome. The civilians. The members. All of them. Have they done or been through what they are teaching or preaching? 

What Vinny Dunn and many others have experienced as seasoned ICs is real experience, not kitchen table bravado, social media firefighting or repeated episodes of luck. The most important thing – and something we should keep in mind when making fireground decisions – is nothing is "always" on this job. There are ever-changing situations, and it all comes down to your size-up, the scene conditions and your immediate available resources, all lead by the IC, who ultimately owns the decision.

[Read next: Who is REALLY training your firefighters?]

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