St. Louis FD begins door-to-door assessment of city's vacant buildings

The goal of the operation is to identify buildings at risk of collapse and prevent firefighters from going inside


Janelle O'Dea
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — A fire captain and three firefighters walked through knee-high grass and up to the front door of a vacant two-story house in the West End neighborhood. The captain bellowed, "FIRE DEPARTMENT!" and knocked.

Nobody answered. The three privates peered in windows, searching for any sign of life.

St. Louis firefighters have visited nearly 4,000 of the more than 10,000 vacant city buildings.
St. Louis firefighters have visited nearly 4,000 of the more than 10,000 vacant city buildings. (Photo/St. Louis Fire Department)

"We want to be respectful," said Capt. Greg Redmond, 56. "And not get shot at."

The city fire department is embarking on a door-to-door structural assessment of vacant buildings citywide in hopes it can identify those at risk of collapse, stop firefighters from going inside and prevent deaths. It's an effort St. Louis fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson called long past due.

So far, St. Louis firefighters have visited nearly 4,000 of more than 10,000 vacant city buildings since January, after firefighter Ben Polson, 33, died in a fire in a vacant house in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood.

Redmond's visit to the two-story in the 6000 block of Maple Avenue, north of Delmar Boulevard, came one day last week, in unseasonably warm weather.

Private Zechariah Potts, 37, noted that the house had no appliances and appeared truly vacant. He logged the information on a form on a department mobile phone and sent it to a server at headquarters.

The crew was loosely guided by a list of vacant buildings provided by the city and didn't stop at houses that were clearly occupied or had manicured lawns. But they did visit buildings that weren't on the list, like a three-story brick house on Maple.

Redmond surveyed the building's roof and grew leery. He could see water damage on the front of the porch overhang and pointed out the half-finished roof renovation project. Someone was here, at some time, trying to improve the building, he said. Two neighbors said a man they know is still working on it.

Roofing repair equipment was left on the roof, but the captain pointed out that it was only roof decking, which does not shed water like a fully-constructed roof does. This means the floors, and other integral parts in keeping the structure standing upright were likely rotted.

Teaching firefighters to look for those types of dangers is the real value in the vacant building survey, the captain said.

Indicators of a faulty structure are difficult to spot during a fire, particularly at night. Any prior knowledge of trouble can be key.

Two privates used a ladder to look through a second-story window and confirmed the floor was warped by water damage. The privates stowed the ladder, rounded the rear corner of the house, and found a surprise: The entire back wall was crumbled.

"This is why the 360 is important," said Private Gavin Alfred, 32.

The software used by the department is a mapping product by Interra, a company that specializes in data visualization for fire department use. When the survey is done and the connection to dispatch is made, firefighters will receive three different levels of notification if an address matches:

  • A red X says do not enter the structure unless people are inside.
  • A red slash means proceed with extreme caution.
  • A house colored entirely red means it was safe to enter when last surveyed by the department.

Once the survey is done, and all connections are made, the truck's computers, as well as department-issued phones, will provide information on vacant buildings to firefighters during calls.

Redmond cautioned that the database has limitations: Some locations will not match addresses in the database, and firefighters won't have time to check while suiting up and heading out.

The database should help, though, and Potts was glad to be out doing the work, even in 90-degree heat. It could prevent another firefighter death.

"I'm glad we are doing something about that incident so we can prevent it from happening again," Potts said. "I wish we had the knowledge on that building, that day."

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(c)2022 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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