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Securing vacant and abandoned buildings: What communities can do

Four actions communities can take to reduce arson in vacant and abandoned buildings and associated firefighter injuries.

Every firefighter knows that vacant or abandoned buildings are a significant public safety issue. These structures are unsightly, attract criminal activity, and are a threat to public safety where they exist. Fire is intertwined with abandonment, as both a cause and an undesired side effect. Injuries to firefighters in unsecured vacant and abandoned properties are linked to the hazards that are present in them.

Building deterioration due to age, weather, urban mining, vandalism, and accumulation of combustible materials (trash), etc., are all reasons for the dangerous conditions. The more deterioration, the more dangerous and unsightly the building becomes. This condition is made worse if the building is also occupied or used by unauthorized occupants to provide shelter, to hide or play in, or to conduct criminal activity.

It is estimated that nearly 20 percent of urban structures in the United States are unused.

Actions to take: Monitor, secure, inspect and mark

Abandoned property is the most striking indication of neighborhood decline. Large-scale abandonment threatens the stability of neighborhoods and undermines the value of investments made by other property owners.

There are four actions communities can take to reduce the negative impact and blight associated with unsecured vacant and abandoned buildings.

1. Monitor

Monitor all vacant properties. Properties that are secure and well-maintained, even though they are unoccupied, are not the problem. Those that have no viable owner and are unsecured and accessible to unauthorized entry require immediate attention to prevent fires and other criminal activity.

2. Secure

Prevent unauthorized access to vacant and abandoned buildings either by proper security or high visibility surveillance. Unsecured vacant or abandoned buildings are intrinsically more dangerous than occupied structures. Securing them is vital — 72 percent of all fires in these buildings are of incendiary or suspicious origin.

Where physical security is required, it must be done well to be effective. Once secured, the building must be patrolled with some frequency to make sure it remains secure. An added benefit to boarding up an entire structure, or “mothballing” it, is that deterioration due to weather exposure is also reduced.

While there are many ways to secure properties, this board up procedure PDF XX KB is one of the most effective. Done correctly and coupled with a surveillance program, buildings secured using this method are very difficult to enter. Using this method also makes buildings resistant to deterioration due to weather and other elements.

Keeping unauthorized occupants out of vacant and abandoned buildings is key to preventing fires. Boarding a building up is one of the most effective ways to do this. Another method is high visibility police patrols. Whatever the method selected by your jurisdiction, the effectiveness of the measures should be evaluated during the inspection.

3. Inspect

Inspect and evaluate vacant or abandoned buildings to identify potential safety issues that first responders would face if they responded to a fire. The evaluation data can also be used in the decision-making process when limited funds must be allocated to address the most significant problems.

The authority to inspect comes from building codes and ordinances adopted by the jurisdiction. It is important to check department policy and know what the inspector has to do to legally enter a property.

The personnel assigned to inspect vacant or abandoned buildings should use extreme caution when entering and moving throughout these structures. Potential hazards for both inspectors and first responders include the following:

Inspectors should wear proper protective clothing and should carry a radio and flashlight when operating in these buildings. It is always good practice to inform dispatch when you are entering and leaving a building so that they can account for your location, should you need assistance.

4. Mark

Mark buildings after they have been secured and inspected. This provides a visual cue to firefighters responding to a fire, indicating that the property is vacant, has been evaluated, and was found to contain hazards to firefighters.

An example of a marking system is the one established in Worcester, Massachusetts, after the loss of six firefighters in the Cold Storage building. This system is an adaptation of the one used in New York City and other major metropolitan cities.

Worcester marking system

sign with an x

An X in the box on a building denotes that only exterior operations should be performed, and only enter the dangerous building if there is a known life hazard.

sign with a slash

A single line in the box on a building denotes that any interior operations should be done using extreme caution.

sign with an empty red box

An empty box on a building denotes that there was normal stability at time of marking.

building marked with an x

An X in the box on a vacant building in Worcester, Massachusetts, tells firefighters to only perform exterior operations and not to enter the dangerous building — unless there is a known life hazard.