Cleveland Firefighters and Building Department Partner to Identify Dangerous Vacant Structures

By Sean DeCrane, Battalion Chief, Cleveland Fire Department

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vacant tenement building
Abandoned and vacant structures pose a safety risk for firefighters, creating a need to identify the potential dangers of entering these buildings. Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto.

The Cleveland Fire Department recently rolled out the Vacant Building Marker Program, allowing battalion chiefs to attach signs to a vacant structure with either a single slash (/) or a double slash (X) to indicate the number of potential hazards. We attach the signs right after a fire while we still have jurisdiction of the property. We also notify the dispatch center so they can enter the property into the CAD System for future responses, creating a multi-notification system.

The goal is to give first arriving companies and incident commanders an indication of the possible hazards of interior operations. This program does not forbid interior operations, but rather is an indicator that the officer shall consider exterior operations.

When deciding between offensive or defensive operations, there are many exposure hazards on a fireground to consider. In addition to structural hazards, other hazards are exposure to the carcinogenic by-products of fire, extreme weather, and the increased time where there is a reduction of response coverage. The latter is a very real concern in communities that are reducing staff levels.

This is not to indicate that companies should disregard the hazard placards or take them lightly. The intent is to cause responding companies to conduct a Dynamic Risk Assessment and use the risk-versus-reward decision-making process. For example, if you encounter a one-room incipient fire, it may make sense to initiate an interior attack safely and responsibly. This may conclude the incident quickly, reducing exposure hazards and returning the responding units back in service.

The placard used is a 28-inch x 36-inch vinyl poster with a 24–inch x 24-inch red square background as described below in Chapter 3 of the International Fire Code:

311.5 Placards.

Any vacant or abandoned buildings or structures determined to be unsafe pursuant to Section 110 of this code relating to structural or interior hazards shall be marked as required by Sections 311.5.1 through 311.5.5.


311.5.1 Placard location.

Placards shall be applied on the front of the structure and be visible from the street. Additional placards shall be applied to the side of each entrance to the structure and on penthouses.


311.5.2 Placard size and color.

Placards shall be 24 inches by 24 inches (610 mm by 610 mm) minimum in size with a red background, white reflective stripes and a white reflective border. The stripes and border shall have a 2-inch (51 mm) minimum stroke.


 311.5.3 Placard date.

Placards shall bear the date of their application to the building and the date of the most recent inspection.


 311.5.4 Placard symbols.

The design of the placards shall use the following symbols:

1.              This symbol  [a red box with no lines through it] shall mean that the structure had normal structural conditions at the time of marking.

2.              This symbol  [see Figure 1 below] shall mean that structural or interior hazards exist and interior fire fighting or rescue operations should be conducted with extreme caution.

3.              This symbol  [see Figure 2 below]] shall mean that structural or interior hazards exist to a degree that consideration should be given to limit fire fighting to exterior operations only, with entry only occurring for known life hazards.

4.            Vacant marker hazard identification symbols: The following symbols shall be used to designate known hazards on the vacant building marker [that is, beneath Figure 1 or 2 below, as appropriate].   They shall be placed directly above the symbol [i.e., Figure 2 below].

4.1.         R/O—Roof open

4.2.         S/M—Stairs, steps and landing missing

4.3.         F/E—Avoid fire escapes

4.4.         H/F—Holes in floor


311.5.5 Informational use.

The use of these symbols shall be informational only and shall not in any way limit the discretion of the on-scene incident commander.


Figure 1: Single Slash warning sign
Figure 1: Indicates
that structural or interior hazards exist and interior fire fighting or rescue operations should be conducted with extreme caution.
Figure 2: 2 slash lines
Figure 2: Indicates that structural or interior hazards exist to a degree that consideration should be given to limit fire fighting to exterior operations only, with entry only after a risk-versus-reward assessment has been completed.

Working with the Building and Housing Department
Identifying hazardous vacant structures during an incident is not the preferred or safest method for recognizing hazards, so we needed assistance. In Cleveland as in many cities, the Building and Housing Department is responsible for residential construction enforcement. They can condemn a structure if any of the following hazards exist: plumbing, electrical, heating and ventilation or structural. The structural issues concern us. Thankfully, there is a strong working relationship between our Fire Prevention Bureau and the Building Department. Because of this relationship, we looked to them for Phase II of the program (Phase I is allows battalion chiefs to placard/label the building after a fire).

We have three conditions under which we can obtain access to a property – when we are responding to an emergency, by invitation or permission of the owner, or through a court-issued warrant. When conditions one and/or two are satisfied, access is not an issue. But there are times when we will need to gain access to perform an inspection to identify potential hazards. The courts do not allow us to gain access to residential properties against the owner’s wishes unless we can demonstrate an obvious life hazard, so we looked for alternatives.

The division that historically obtains warrants in residential properties is Building and Housing. We approached the Division of Building and Housing with our concerns regarding the vacant structures in Cleveland. Our area is one of the hardest hit areas due to the recent mortgage crisis, which has resulted in a large number of vacant structures in our jurisdiction. The challenge was to identify the properties we were concerned about, gain access for the fire service and not cause a negative impact to the building inspectors’ work schedules. After discussions between our departments, we created a program that relies on the housing inspector without requiring him or her to remain on the scene for an undue amount of time.

The Division of Fire will create a training program for housing Inspectors indicating the hazardous conditions we want to identify – holes in floors, compromised structural stability, holes in roof, stairs missing, etc. When inspectors discover any of these hazards while conducting their vacant property inspections, they will contact our dispatch center, notifying them of the location. The Alarm Office will then dispatch the respective battalion chief to complete the survey established by the International Association of Arson Investigators and the United States Fire Administration. When the battalion chief arrives, he will relieve the inspector.  After the inspection, if the battalion chief identifies any hazards, he will attach the appropriate Vacant Building Hazard Marker. If the battalion chief is not available or has a delayed response, then the closest engine company will dispatch to secure the scene so the housing inspector can leave and continue his scheduled inspections.

With budget cuts closing companies, potentially causing a delay in the arrival of a full box alarm assignment, our department recognized we had to be proactive if we wanted to create a safer work environment for our members. We are hopeful this joint project, with the physical placards and dispatch notifications, will create additional information for our responding companies so company officers and incident commanders can make safer informed tactical decisions.

Sean DeCrane is a Battalion Chief for the city of Cleveland Fire Department with over 19 years of experience. He currently is assigned to a suppression role and serves as an adjunct instructor for the Cleveland Fire Training Academy as a certified State of Ohio Fire Instructor. DeCrane represents the International Association of Fire Fighters during the ICC Code Process and has served on the International Fire Code Development Committee for the two previous cycles. DeCrane also was a member of the Balanced Fire Protection Study Group (a.k.a. Height and Area Committee) and serves as the Vision 20/20: National Fire Loss Prevention Agenda’s Strategy 5 Chairman. DeCrane also currently sits on the Underwriters Laboratories Fire Council.