ST. LOUIS – Thick smoke billowed from the vacant, crumbling St. Louis house, but Benjamin Polson knew homeless people might be inside taking refuge from the January chill.
So the 33-year-old firefighter went in. It cost him his life.
Eleven days later, three Baltimore firefighters died when an abandoned row home collapsed. The same vacant house was the site of another fire seven years earlier that injured three firefighters.
Vacant homes dot the landscape — urban and rural — across the U.S. They're far more prone to catch fire, and because the structures are often compromised, they are especially dangerous for firefighters.
Officials in St. Louis and Baltimore are looking at ways to reduce those risks.
St. Louis fire leaders are doing an inventory of every vacant home — all 10,000 of them — with plans to develop a computerized database so firefighters know what they're getting into. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott directed every department to evaluate how to deal with the city's 15,000 vacant homes.
“This is a top priority of my Administration,” Scott said in a statement on Jan. 31. "Anything less than our very best attempt at solving the problem would be a discredit to the lives of the brave firefighters we lost last week and the residents we serve day in and day out.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are more than 17 million vacant homes nationwide. Many have been abandoned and left to rot, but red tape and a lack of money prevent cities and counties from moving quickly toward demolition.
Even in buildings with no utilities, crumbling walls and dangling roofs, homeless people often take shelter, especially in winter. When they make a small fire to cook or stay warm, the blaze can spread.
St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson wasn't surprised that Polson went into the flames on Jan. 13, especially since neighbors alerted first responders that people were potentially inside.
“We’re there to help people and help them make it each day,” Jenkerson said. “There wasn’t any question.”
A 2018 report by the National Fire Protection Association found that U.S. departments responded to an average of more than 30,000 vacant building fires each year. Those fires injure, on average, 3,300 firefighters annually.
Curt Floyd, technical lead for responders at the National Fire Protection Agency and a retired firefighter in Connecticut, said there is no single approach that works best for all departments. But, he said, firefighters are simply wired to save lives.
“It’s a risk assessment evaluation everybody’s going to make, but there’s that chance that a life could be in there," Floyd said.
Still, many communities have adopted new policies to protect firefighters.
After an internal study found that 60% of firefighter injuries in Flint, Michigan, were at vacant buildings, the city changed protocols in the mid-2010s. Now, firefighters do not enter homes that have been deemed unfixable and are awaiting demolition unless lives are clearly at risk.
“We adopted this policy so we didn’t have to have that line at a funeral,” Fire Chief Raymond Barton said. “It was like, why are we running into these vacant structures, putting our firefighters at risk?”
The U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, suggests that communities determine the structural soundness of each vacant building and provide a visual exterior marker.
Worcester, Massachusetts, established a marking system after six firefighters died at an abandoned warehouse in 1999. An “X” in an exterior box indicates firefighters should not enter a vacant building unless a known life is endangered. A single slash means use extreme caution. An empty box means the building was stable at the time of the marking. Several other cities use similar systems.
In Baltimore, where firefighters Paul Butrim, Kelsey Sadler and Kenny Lacayo died Jan. 24, firefighters decided to go into the vacant home because an adjacent row home was still occupied, Chief Niles R. Ford said. A fourth firefighter was critically injured but survived.
WJZ-TV, citing property records, reported that the home had been vacant 11 years.
On Jan. 31, Scott directed all city departments to conduct 30-day reviews to determine ways to address vacant homes and the dangers they pose. Scott said COVID-19 stimulus money will be used toward the solutions.
In St. Louis, Polson grew up in a firefighter family. His dad, Jim, spent more than 30 years with the department and retired as a captain.
So despite earning an MBA and a law degree, Polson jumped at the chance when a spot opened in the St. Louis Fire Academy. He joined the department in 2019.
Jenkerson understands. His own father and grandfather were firefighters, too.
“For whatever reason it gets ingrained into your psyche,” Jenkerson said.
The St. Louis home where Polson died has long sat vacant. Built in 1895, records show the owner lives out of state and has ignored repeated notices.
The city typically demolishes 600 to 700 homes annually at a cost of up to $14,000 per building. Democratic Missouri state Rep. Donna Baringer of St. Louis has proposed a bill aimed at expediting vacant home demolitions in the city.
Meanwhile, Jenkerson's department is assessing the structural soundness of every vacant building. By March, he expects to have a database accessible from computers in each fire truck listing every structure as either high risk, medium risk or low risk. Firefighters won't enter high-risk vacant buildings without clear evidence that someone may be inside.
Barton, the Flint fire chief, said the more defensive approach will take some getting used to, just as it did in Flint.
“Now it’s accepted," he said. "If it's a vacant structure with no exposures, they don’t have a problem letting it go.”