Friday Forum: Words Matter

Vacant buildings and the Fire Service have a long history.  Buildings abandoned by their owners breed crime, and crime breeds fires, be they intentionally set for criminal mischief or accidentally kindled by the destitute inhabiting them.  Commonly referred to as “Vacants,” there is unanimous consensus that fires in these buildings are particularly dangerous, commonly due to their uncertain structural stability among other hazards. The consensus ends there, however, as some have taken the “Vacant” designator as an automatic cue for an empty building devoid of life hazard, translating to a meek stance on search.  “It’s a Vacant, there’s no one in there.  Defensive attack only.”

The trouble is that “Vacant” is an adjective, but we have inappropriately turned it into a noun, and this seemingly subtle confusion has great ramifications for accurately defining the problem set. “Vacant” is meant to describe the occupancy of its associated noun, meaning that a vacant lot has nothing on it, and a vacant building has nothing in it.  But do we have any idea upon our arrival at a structure fire of who is or isn’t inside? NO! Only a search can tell us that.  And yet by labeling these buildings “Vacants” we are unwittingly making a subconscious assertion about their occupancy, whether we mean to or not.  

Perhaps a better term is “Abandoned.”  During our size-up, the appropriate goal is to evaluate the status of the building and the status of the fire, as the status of occupancy (unless you have people screaming from a window) can only be determined by a search. The adjective “Abandoned” is an assessment of use, NOT of occupancy, providing a more accurate description of what appears to be true and while still conveying appropriate evidence of additional hazards.  I’ll be the first to take the blame for this, as I have penned previous articles on “Vacants” and referred to abandoned buildings this way for much of my fire service career.  However, to build an appropriate search culture, we must avoid language that conveys anything other than this fundamental message: it's occupied until proven otherwise. Words matter. Tim Anderson

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