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First Responders: Getting Past the Plywood

Hand Grabbing House BHThe property preservation industry’s age-old standard for securing windows on vacant residential homes, plywood, has come under heavy scrutiny in the last couple of years due to issues that can arise when a plywood-secured property sits vacant for any period of time—squatters, vandalism, community blight, and violent crime.

The industry has taken various measures to combat these issues—for instance, in November 2016 Fannie Mae announced that all of its residential properties in pre-foreclosure would be required to use an alternative to plywood to secure the homes.

These issues affect more than those in the mortgage industry and in the community where the vacant properties are located, however. First responders are aware that anytime they are called to a vacant property, there might be danger lurking inside—and that the vacant property might not be truly vacant.

The Seattle Fire Department has concerns when responding to structures that have been physically modified, as it creates very dangerous and hazardous situations for our firefighters,” Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said. “It is such a significant problem that we have created standard operating guidelines for derelict buildings to try and ensure the safety of our firefighters when responding to these types of buildings. In the vacant or abandoned buildings alone this year, SFD has seen 16 fires in these kinds of structures.”

In an area such as Miami, is hurricane-prone, homeowners sometimes board their windows up through hurricane season.

“Any time we encounter a situation where there are boards on the windows, we never look at those properties as unoccupied. We never do that,” said Captain Bill Gustin of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

When he is called to a property and there are boards on the windows, Gustin said the procedure is to look for extension cords running from the property to the home next door, where squatters may be borrowing electricity.

“Several times I’ve cut the wood and seen people who are in there jump up and run out of there like a scared rabbit,” Gustin said.

As they do with any situation, first responders are careful to consider safety first when entering a boarded-up house.

“The first thing we need to do is make sure the scene is safe,” said Capt. Joseph Amador, Fire Captain with the San Diego Fire Department and Public Information Officer. “If the house is boarded up, or something like that, and I don’t think that it’s safe for my firefighters or EMTs to enter, then we will not enter. We’ll call for the police department to come and give us a backup and maybe clear the area for us to come on in.”

An unexpected situation could cause a change in plans for first responders, Amador said.

“We’re there with the intention to help someone who has called for assistance, and we’re unable to reach that patient because someone is there to cause us harm or someone is standing in our way, obviously we don’t want that to happen,” he said. “With that in mind, we’ll call for assistance or back out.”

If there is a fire inside a boarded-up structure, the home loses ventilation over time and causes the fire to slowly die. When firefighters enter a home with limited ventilation and a fire is smoldering inside, the sudden influx of oxygen on the embers could cause the house to quickly become “a roman candle,” Gustin said.

“One of the issues is going to be ventilating the structure,” said Lt. Steven Lawrence, Deputy Fire Marshal and Public Information Officer with the St. Petersburg (Florida) Fire Department. “If we have an active fire inside, firefighter safety is our concern. Not only is our safety a concern, but being able to get the superheated gases and smoke out of the structure are going to be a priority for us to deal with. The other thing with the boarded-up structure is, you don’t know what type of condition the interior is in. A lot of times in our area, vagrants will get into the property and demolish it or steal the wiring out of the property. You never know what you’re going into when it’s a vacant structure, especially when it’s boarded up. Our biggest concern is what are we getting into and how easily could we get our people out in an emergency situation.”

The issues brought on by using plywood to board up vacant homes have prompted some innovators to create alternatives to plywood (such as polycarbonate clearboarding and steel) that do not create the same concerns as plywood.

“Those houses are used frequently by squatters, sometimes as drug houses to sell drugs out of, or drugs houses to use drugs in,” said Mike Taylor, State Secretary and Legislative Chairman with the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio. “So you have that direct law enforcement problem of a vacant and abandoned property to begin with. With plywood on the windows, vacant and abandoned properties are easily identified. You get sent on dispatch runs or calls there for a suspicious person or possible drug dealer, and you arrive at the property, and you can’t do any type of short-term surveillance where you can look in the windows and see what may or may not be in there or may or may not be going on. If you have a view through the windows through some sort of substance other than plywood, it’s a huge advantage, not just for police but for fire that gets sent on those runs, so you can at least look inside before you approach or try and gain entrance to the property.”

Ultimately, houses boarded up by plywood can adversely affect the entire community, according to Taylor.

“It brings a whole different character to the neighborhood, and with that brings other types of crimes that may or may not actually be occurring inside the vacant property,” Taylor said. “Because of the blight it brings on the neighborhood, it lowers the standards of the neighborhood, at least within a block or so, can bring its own set of problems beyond what may or may not be going on inside the vacant property.”

In January 2017, a white paper written by former U.S. Treasury Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy Aaron Klein titled Understanding the True Costs of Abandoned Properties: How Maintenance Can Make a Difference estimated that one year of vacancy for one property causes around $150,000 in damages. That same month, Ohio became the first state to ban the use of plywood on vacant properties.

“Plywood is an outdated solution to a growing modern-day problem,” said Robert Klein, Chairman and Founder of Ohio-based Community Blight Solutions (no relation to Aaron Klein). “We need to apply 21st century solutions to reverse the trends that are decimating our neighborhoods. It is my hope that other states will follow Ohio’s leadership and enact similar legislation.”

In recent years, polycarbonate clearboarding has become a popular alternative to plywood for securing windows in vacant homes. Fannie Mae began using clearboarding to secure vacant homes in REO properties in 2013 and went nationwide with it starting in early 2014. But using it in the pre-foreclosure process began recently with the announcement of the new allowable in early November.

“The use of clearboarding gives off the appearance of a normal window, so the curb appeal is much higher on a clearboarded property versus plywood boarded,” said Jake Williamson, VP, Real Estate Fulfillment & Operational Analysis at Fannie Mae. “The first thing is the curb appeal. (Polycarbonate) does give off the perspective that it's just a normal home in a market where you're trying to compete with non-distressed sales, that it's just a normal home. The second thing is, it's an incredibly secure product. You can literally throw a cinder block at it and it's not going to shatter or crack.”

About Author: Brian Honea

Brian Honea's writing and editing career spans nearly two decades across many forms of media. He served as sports editor for two suburban newspaper chains in the DFW area and has freelanced for such publications as the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Dallas Home Improvement magazine, and the Dallas Morning News. He has written four non-fiction sports books, the latest of which, The Life of Coach Chuck Curtis, was published by the TCU Press in December 2014. A lifelong Texan, Brian received his master's degree from Amberton University in Garland.

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