Apr 2020

Protection for Idle and Vacant Properties

Currently we are in unprecedented times with the COVID-19 virus, which has caused a global recession. One of the direct results of the virus is the impact on business. Companies have furloughed employees on a temporary basis and facilities are being shut down.  At Risk Logic we want to offer our assistance to mitigate any potential losses.  One area of concern are vacant buildings.

Why do buildings go idle or become vacant?

As noted in our earlier articles in July 2002 and August 2010, properties can become idle and/or vacant for many reasons and are not always abandoned. Reasons can include changes in ownership/occupant, annual shutdowns, labor strikes and building renovations. History has proven that when a facility is idle there is a high risk for potential loss and often these sites can become target locations for arson and vandalism.

What are the problems associated with an idle or vacant building?

The recent February 2018 report “Fires in Vacant Buildings” by NFPA Research includes some eye-opening statistics. Recent history has shown that fires in vacant buildings are more likely to have been intentionally set and to spread beyond the building than are fires in other structures. They also cause a disproportionate share of firefighter injuries. A brief synopsis of some of the report statistics is as follows:

  • In 2011-2015, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 30,200 structure fires per year in vacant properties. These fires resulted in an average of 60 civilian deaths, 160 civilian injuries, and $710 million in direct property damage per year.
  • Half of vacant building fires were determined to have been intentionally set, compared to 10% of all structure fires. 
  • An estimated average of 3,310 firefighters per year were injured at vacant building fires during 2011-2015.

Fire may be the greatest concern from a property loss prevention standpoint, but there are other threats including theft, electrical breakdowns, freeze-ups, flooding and wind damage.  The following guidelines can help you protect your facility, regardless of the time period that it will be vacant or idle:

1. Fire – Always Keep Sprinkler Systems Active

  • Automatic sprinkler systems, and their associated alarms, should be left in active service whenever possible.
  • Wet-pipe sprinkler systems require maintaining building temperature at a minimum of 40ºF. 
  • Automatic sprinkler control valves should always be in the open position, fire extinguishers and all other fire protection equipment (as required by applicable NFPA standards) should be readily available.
  • Test all fire protection system alarms (sprinkler control valve and water flow alarms) regularly to ensure they are still operative (as required by NFPA 25).
  • Consider installing smoke or heat detection systems in areas (containing combustible construction and/or occupancy) that are not provided with automatic sprinklers.
  • Notify Risk Logic when the sprinkler system is out of service and follow the Fire Protection Impairment system procedure.

Remove Unnecessary Combustibles

  • Remove any debris or other combustibles inside the building and within 25 ft. of the building.
  • Keep all weeds, brush etc. cleared from around building.
  • Remove all waste materials such as trash, cardboard or anything else left behind.
  • All flammable liquid tanks should be drained and secured (by removing them or filling them with sand or concrete).

Eliminate or Control Ignition Sources

  • Restrict hot work operations while the building is unattended.
  • Carefully monitor the removal of any machinery and equipment.
  • Use Risk Logic’s Hot Work Permit System for any brazing, cutting, grinding, soldering and welding.
  • Turn off all non-essential electrical equipment. Secure/isolate any utilities (gas or electric) that are not in service, if not needed for building heat.
  • Supervise outside contractors closely; all visitors should be escorted.

Notify the Fire Department and Invite Them to Tour the Facility 

  • Conducting a planning session with the local fire department to coordinate emergency response.
  • Be sure the fire department is familiar with all sprinkler and alarm systems that will remain in service.
  • The fire department should have easy access or a key to the facility.  They should also know where to meet on-site security staff when responding to an emergency.
  • If there is no on-site security, be sure that the fire department has someone to contact in the event of an emergency.

2. Arson/Vandalism – Strengthen Security

  • Maintain burglar/entry alarms in operating service along with central station monitoring 
  • Inform local police department when the facility becomes unoccupied
  • External
  • Increase watch service.
  • Increase exterior lighting and install motion sensitive lights.
  • Eliminate combustible storage and if possible, put fencing around any storage areas.
  • Make frequent unscheduled rounds.
  • Check entrance point daily to look for signs of break-ins.
  • Keep trees and shrubbery trimmed so the building can be easily observed.
  • Do a perimeter check every night to be sure that the facility is secure.
  • Internal
  • Provide additional locks for all entries to the facility (windows, doors, gates, roof hatches).
  • Keep a current list of all individuals who have access to keys and periodically change locks.

3. Preventing Freeze-ups

  • Keep building heat operating to prevent fire protection equipment from freezing.
  • Convert sprinkler systems to dry-pipe systems if building heat is not provided or convert to non-freeze systems for all small-unheated areas.
  • Shut domestic water service if not needed to supply boilers

Many of the above recommended guidelines are more applicable to longer vs. shorter term idle periods, but all will help ensure that your idle or vacant facility is better protected.  Contact Risk Logic to determine where you are at risk, or to develop additional loss prevention advice specific to your facility.