MALDEN, WV (WOWK)—Fires in abandoned or dilapidated buildings can put firefighters at serious risk. In March 2023 a veteran Charleston firefighter Captain John Hastings was hurt while responding to one of those calls. The second floor collapsed on top of him. The incident has brought to the forefront how dangerous those situations can be.
“You know you hear that call go out for help and it changes your mindset just a little bit, but we are fortunate enough it was no worse than what it was,” said Robbie Bailey, Chief Deputy West Virginia State Fire Marshal, regarding the March 12 incident involving Hastings.
“They are trained, to as soon as he knew he was in trouble he immediately radioed that out in a Mayday situation and they immediately went into a rescue mode to get him out of there. So you know, a lot of factors came into that. His own training himself, the department’s training in those situations where they have one of their own trapped and the equipment they had on scene,” Bailey said.
Responding to those types of calls is a concern for firefighters all across the state. Leaders with the West Virginia State Fire Marshal’s office said in 2022 there were 11 fire service injuries while responding to vacant building fires. That includes 3 injuries at vacant buildings that were secured, 5 injuries at vacant buildings that were unsecured, 2 injuries at buildings that were considered idle, and 1 in a vacant mobile home.
“If we pulled up on a vacant house, years ago, we would know it was a vacant house. Today we pull up to a vacant or condemned structure and we don’t know,” explained Squeak Peterson, Chief of the Malden Fire Department. He said they often have no idea what kind of conditions they are going to encounter. “Especially in the wintertime some of these houses they’ve taken boards out of the wall or out of the floor, and they’ve cut them up and used part of the dirt ground to build them a warming fire inside of the structure.”
Peterson has spent more than half a century in fire service. He said even if they know the building is supposed to be empty they have to be sure. That can mean sending firefighters inside.
“Everybody is the same in our eyes,” Peterson said. “A human life is a human life. Our job is to protect life and property and we don’t worry about whether it is drugs or homeless or what the circumstances are that doesn’t change our gameplan at all.”
He demonstrated a tool they have on each truck that can help detect body heat and quickly locate someone inside a burning building.
“It is cluttered you know, their trash is still there, they’ve taken whatever furniture was left behind and put it where you wouldn’t expect furniture to be,” Peterson said. “Most of these houses, they are not living in the whole house they are just looking for a place to stay, looking for a place to sleep, looking for a place to stay warm, and it may be a six-room house they may be using one room just to do all of that.”
Many communities are working to tackle the job of tearing down some of the abandoned or vacant buildings. Last year West Virginia launched a major initiative to provide funding for that purpose. Chris Collins is the Fire Marshal in St. Albans. Since 2022 they’ve demolished 20 problem properties.
“I think it has always been a problem but as of late it has become less of a problem in St. Albans because we have a very proactive building department who is taking advantage of a lot of different programs in order to get these places condemned and torn down,” Collins said. “That saves us the potential of having a fire there and increases the value of the neighborhood.”
Over in the City of Charleston, officials said between 2020 and 2021 the number of fires at vacant structures stayed flat and then decreased the following year. They said that is in part because since 2019 they’ve demolished more than 400 structures and elevated funding toward that mission. But often times there are multiple steps between identifying a problem property and getting it torn down. In the meantime, firefighters have a strategy to plan ahead.
“We always have target properties for the fire department that we always make sure we are familiar with,” Collins said. “Our guys are familiar with them so any time that address comes out we typically know, whatever target hazard that may be whether it is a vacant house or something we know has hazardous materials. But if it is a vacant house, we tend to know those addresses.”
Back at the Malden Volunteer Fire Department, Squeak Peterson said as work continues across the state to demolish problem properties he hopes those who seek shelter inside them will realize they aren’t just risking the lives of firefighters. He said they are putting themselves in harm’s way as well.
“As far as the people who are living on the street and using these vacant houses, we all know there is assistance out there and we encourage you to use something that is reliable and less dangerous for you and make our life a little less dangerous,” Peterson said.
He said they’ve had people return to stay in homes that have already burned even if there is only one room left intact.
“Our biggest fear is if we don’t do these searches we are going to get done and somebody is going to come up missing and we are going to have to go back to that residence and look because that might be where they were,” Peterson said.
This is why he says firefighters do what they are trained to do even in the face of danger.
Right now, there are no requirements in the state of West Virginia relating to training specifically for response to a fire in a vacant or dilapidated building. The state Fire Marshal’s Office says general training provided covers everything firefighters need to know for those situations.
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