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Firefighters can gain access into the property by cutting through the clear polycarbonate material like SecureView with a power saw.

A solution for reducing vacant building fires

The urban landscapes of most major U.S. cities and many rural areas remain scarred by an abundance of vacant and abandoned properties, a grim reminder of the mortgage foreclosure crisis that gripped our nation during the Great Recession. These abandoned structures, most of them with plywood boards covering their windows and doors, continue to send a signal of neighborhoods in trouble and contribute to a self-perpetuating cycle of blight.

Outdated foreclosure laws in many states often cause vacant and abandoned residential properties to sit empty for two years or more and become “zombie homes” that no one has any incentive to maintain. Owners of vacant commercial properties are often reluctant to rehabilitate their properties when fear and crime exist and the cycle of blight crippling the neighborhood continues unabated.

Further, consider these recent headlines from news outlets across the country…

  • Vacant house fire damages neighbors’ home. (Fort Wayne, Ind.)
  • ‘Tough fire’ wrecks auditorium at defunct Cooley High. (Detroit, Mich.)
  • Rockford firefighter injured after falling through the floor during vacant home fire. (Rockford, Ill.)
  • Las Vegas Fire and Rescue battling vacant building fire. (Las Vegas, Nev.)
  • Man dies in fire in vacant Tacoma building. (Tacoma, Wash.)

There is an unfortunate common theme with all of these stories. These fires were started in vacant and abandoned properties and led to loss of life, injuries and significant property loss and damage. With cold weather gripping many parts of the country, vacant and abandoned buildings become havens for squatters, resulting in an increased fire risk.

SecureView polycarbonate clearboarding is installed using a compression bolt and interior bracing bar system, permitting egress from the building by striking the bracing bar from the inside.

SecureView polycarbonate clearboarding is installed using a compression bolt and interior bracing bar system, permitting egress from the building by striking the bracing bar from the inside.

From 2010 to 2012, an estimated 25,000 vacant residential building fires were reported annually in the U.S., according to the U.S. Fire Administration National Fire Data Center. Vacant residential building fires are considered part of the residential fire problem and accounted for 7% of all residential building fires, resulting in an estimated 60 deaths, 225 injuries and $777 million in property loss each year.

Fires are likely to occur in vacant properties because of poor maintenance, faulty wiring, and debris. In the winter, homeless people burn candles for light and heat and may even bring in outdoor grills.

More importantly, vacant buildings are a primary target of arsonists. In its report on Vacant Building Fires, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that fires in vacant buildings are more likely to have been intentionally set than other structure fires. Forty-three percent of reported vacant fires over a three-year period were intentionally set, compared to 10% of structure fires overall. Vacant buildings accounted for 25% of all intentionally set structure fires.

Fires in vacant buildings also pose a danger to the neighborhood. According to the U.S. Fire Administration National Fire Data Center, of vacant residential building fires, 53% spread to involve the entire building and an additional 11% extended beyond the building to adjacent properties.

The conclusion: the more secure a vacant building is, the less there is a potential for a fire.

Training for safe entry and egress from a building secured with SecureView clear polycarbonate has been conducted with firefighters and first responders in major metro areas across the U.S., including the Kentland, MD Fire Department, pictured.

Training for safe entry and egress from a building secured with SecureView clear polycarbonate has been conducted with firefighters and first responders in major metro areas across the U.S., including the Kentland, MD Fire Department, pictured.

For decades, plywood has been the standard material used for boarding vacant and abandoned properties. But, it has proven to be ineffective in securing these properties and sends a message to vandals and squatters, “come and get me.”

Plywood boarding can be easily removed by intruders who often cause irreparable damage. These properties require constant attention from code enforcement to address violations. Police, fire and first responder calls to the property are continuous, placing a strain on city and community resources and budgets.

For first responders, plywood boarded properties are a safety hazard. Firefighters and rescuers can’t see inside the building when arriving on the scene, placing them at serious risk. On average, 4,500 firefighters were injured at vacant building fires annually during a three-year period, accounting for 13% of reported firefighter injuries incurred at structure fires per year during this period, according to the NFPA Vacant Building Fires report.

Removing the plywood boarding from these properties can be an important first step in reversing the spread of community blight but also making these properties more secure and safer. I have been advocating for legislation at the state and local level that would ban the use of plywood boarding on all vacant residential, municipal, and commercial properties.

Polycarbonate clearboarding is virtually unbreakable so it protects the property from intrusion and reduces the crime often associated with plywood and steel board-ups.

Polycarbonate clearboarding is virtually unbreakable so it protects the property from intrusion and reduces the crime often associated with plywood and steel board-ups.

As an alternative, polycarbonate clearboarding materials like SecureView instead of plywood are practical for securing vacant and abandoned properties. A state-of-the-art technology, polycarbonate clearboarding is being used in communities across the country to secure unoccupied properties and preventing them from becoming “zombies.”

Clearboarding is virtually unbreakable, so it protects the property from intrusion and reduces crimes like drugs and prostitution which occurs with plywood and steel board-ups. Designed to look like glass, SecureView doesn’t broadcast that a property is vacant so it is less likely to become a drug house.

Firefighters can gain access into the property by cutting through the clear polycarbonate material with a power saw. Products like SecureView are installed using a compression bolt and interior bracing bar system, permitting egress from inside the building by striking the bracing bar to get out.

Though polycarbonate is approximately twice the material cost of plywood, it is far more cost-effective across the lifetime of the boarded property. The economic impact of using polycarbonate clearboarding is meaningful across neighborhoods, and the increase in safety and security is significant.

We were recently invited by Chicago 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez to demonstrate the SecureView polycarbonate clearboarding on a vacant building in his ward. Capt. Brian Helmond, Chicago Fire Department District Fire Chief, accompanied Alderman Lopez to the demonstration and witnessed firsthand the benefits of the clearboarding system.

To prove that the material is virtually unbreakable, Capt. Helmond attacked the polycarbonate with a sledge hammer, only to have the hammer glance off with each blow. He went inside the building to examine the bracing system, which was modeled after the HUD guidelines for standardized boarding, and confirmed the quick and safe egress for firefighters.

Commenting on the clearboarding, Capt. Helmond said, “It does not give the people (squatters) the security of being behind a sheet of plywood. With the right tools it can be easily opened and it’s less dangerous as it comes off the building than some of the other systems we have in the city,” he noted.

We have tested SecureView with fire departments in major cities across the U.S. and provided training for first responders for safe entry and egress from a building secured with clear polycarbonate. The reaction and response to the clearboarding product has been universally positive and have received the endorsement of firefighters as a more secure, safer alternative to plywood boarding.

Polycarbonate clearboarding is a proven solution for securing vacant and abandoned properties and reducing the negative impact these buildings have on the surrounding community. More importantly, it can reduce the risk of fires and save lives.

For more information, go to www.secureviewusa.com

References

  1. Vacant Residential Building Fires (2010-2012); TFRS Volume 15, Issue 11, U.S. Fire Administration www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v15i11.pdf
  2. Vacant Building Fires Report, National Fire Protection Association www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/fire-statistics/fires-by-property-type/vacant-building-fires
  3. Vacant Residential Building Fires (2010-2012); TFRS Volume 15, Issue 11, U.S. Fire Administration www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v15i11.pdf
  4. Vacant Building Fires Report, National Fire Protection Association www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/fire-statistics/fires-by-property-type/vacant-building-fires

Robert Klein, Founder and Chairman, SecureView and its advocacy arm, Community Blight Solutions.

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