It’s not uncommon for cities to end up with vacant buildings. Sometimes they pick them up due to foreclosure with plans to do something to them, or the property that they reside on, and other times they build newer facilities and are unable to sell or find another use for the older ones. Whatever the reasoning for the city owning them, these vacant properties do come with their own unique set of challenges as far as keeping them secure and maintained. Infrequently used buildings, such as fire halls and community centers that can go days between use, will also contain many of these challenges.
The first of the unique hazards present in vacant and infrequently used buildings can be caused by individuals trespassing on the property. Many vacant properties, due to their very nature of being unused buildings, contain hazards that would be unacceptable in a building that is in use. These hazards could be things such as loose or missing floorboards, missing steps, poor wiring, and exposed insulation. All of these could cause risk of injury to someone trespassing who is unfamiliar with the property and doesn’t know to avoid them.
Did you know that the city could still be held liable if someone injures themselves while trespassing on city property? That is why it is important to make sure that all vacant buildings are property secured. This means ensuring that all doors and windows are locked and in good repair. Any broken doors or windows should be boarded up. Each entrance should also have a “No Trespassing” sign or something similar to warn potential trespassers that the property is unsafe for them to enter.
Due to a lack of regular attention and maintenance, as well as the risk of intruders breaking in and starting one, vacant buildings are at a higher risk of fire. Further increasing the risk should one occur, is that many do not have operational sprinkler systems, even if one is installed.
To save on utility costs, many vacant buildings have the power and gas turned off. If the building is not heated, then the water should also be turned off and the sprinkler system (if present) should be drained as well to prevent frozen pipes from bursting. This leads to a decrease in controls should a fire break out, but may be considered a necessity as maintaining utility systems for a building that isn’t being used can be costly and time consuming. It is something that each individual city will need to weigh the risks for and decide what they feel comfortable with.
If the city wishes to keep the sprinkler system operational, the building should remain heated, and regular inspections of the system should occur as they would for any other building.
Infrequently used buildings
Infrequently used buildings, such as community centers or fire halls, that may be used as little as once a week or less can often times run these risks of trespass and fire as well. Though they most likely will not also suffer from the same maintenance issues as a vacant building may have, they do have these risks due to their infrequent use. With individuals not frequenting the buildings on a daily basis, a fire hazard is more likely to not be corrected as no one is there to notice it, and when people are in the building, they are usually just there for a meeting, event, etc. and then on their way without inspecting the entirety of the building. If these infrequently used buildings are also not monitored between uses, they also run the risk of trespass as they are typically well maintained buildings that people know they can get into and use without being noticed.
What Can You Do?The best practice for vacant and infrequently used buildings is to implement a regular inspection schedule to ensure that no conditions exist which could lead to fires or individuals easily being able to gain access to the building.
Regular inspections of the building should include:
· Inspection of roof for leaks and stability (check roof in spring and fall, as well as after any severe winter event)
· Look for new holes or loose boards in flooring and mark them appropriately so others less familiar with the building know that they are there
· Check to make sure any operational utility systems such as boilers are in proper working condition
· Premise is free of insect or vermin infestations
· Exterior walls are still structurally sound
· All exterior warning signs are maintained
· All doors, windows, etc. are secured to deter trespassers
· Sprinkler system, if operational, is following a regular inspection process (if it is not operational, or if heating is turned off, it should be drained)
· Electrical fixtures, devices, and wiring systems maintained
Drive-by inspections should also be completed to check for tampering of locks or entry ways into the building.