Who\'s Protecting Our Firefighters
Hank Investigates: Who's Protecting Our Firefighters
Fire experts say this kind of vacant building -- illegally open and full of debris -- is a disaster waiting to happen.
- Vincent Dunn, Fire Investigator
"If anyone wants to start a fire, a vacant building allows access, it allows concealment of the fire, and there's fuel in the building. So we call a vacant building 'fire breeder.'"
And our investigation found thousands of buildings unsecured, uninspected and unsafe, and thousands of firefighters in danger.
- Robert Corry, Fire expert
"It's like a roulette wheel. When is the number gonna come up? When is the fire going to occur, because sooner or later something is going to happen."
It happened in Holyoke. A fire took down an entire city block. It was started in a vacant building, officials say, by people who were not supposed to be there.
And just last month in Worcester, the most devastating fire in the city's history. It too, was started in a vacant building. Officials say by people who were not supposed to be there.
But here's the untold story. Records show in Massachusetts, there's a fire in a vacant building almost twice every week. And often, investigators find, the fires are started by people were not supposed to be there.
- Robert Corry
"What happened in Worcester could happen again tonight."
One reason: though this state law specifically requires owners of vacant buildings to keep them boarded and secure, we found it's often impossible to enforce. Even when inspectors find the vacant buildings, they can't always find the buildings owners.
- Julie Fothergill, Boston ISD
"Finding absentee landlords is a full time job."
In fact, we found dozens of cases where Boston Inspectional Services officials sent owners emergency demands to board up their vacant buildings and those orders were ignored.
"Why can't cities keep these buildings secure?"
"I think our system is in disarray and it has been for years."
The Worcester Cold Storage building proves the point. City documents we obtained reveal a fire in place last April and the buildings owner was repeatedly ordered to keep it boarded. Worcester officials admit that all over town, chasing landlords is often a losing battle.
- David Moore, Worcester City Attorney
"Its frustrating to see property owners who appear to be irresponsible in their ownership of the property, and it's frustrating to know you may not have caught them all."
But we found most communities don't even know where the vacant buildings are. No law requires property owners to say when a building will be empty. Now, city inspectors simply find them by chance.
But what makes vacant buildings especially dangerous for firefighters is there's no law requiring them to be inspected. As a result, some firefighters have no idea whatls inside.
- Chief Dennis Newman, Sandwich Fire Dept.
"We don't have the ability to ride around town and look for the structures that are like this. As a result our people are exposed to some real severe hazards, unnecessarily."
Unstable walls, weak floors, missing stairways. The chief himself was cornered in a vacant building when a broken door trapped him.
- Chief Dennis Newman
"As search, a panic search of the room, you go through all you've been trained to do. But all I could no was just break a hole in the wall."
That's why a federal alert we obtained says inspections and pre-fire planning are critical to firefighter safety.
- Vincent Dunn, NIOSH Consultant
"It is more dangerous for the firefighter to combat a fire in a vacant building than it is in a occupied building."
So now firefighters worry that unless more safeguards are put in place, their next call may be the next tragedy.
"Do you wish you knew more about the vacant buildings in your town?"
Chief Dennis Newman
"Oh absolutely. It can make a difference between life and death."
The disaster in Worcester has galvanized fire experts and officials at the highest levels of state government and sources tell us right now plans are underway not only to crack down on negligent building owners, but also to revamp state laws to ensure firefighter safety.