Rochester Fire Chief Sees Hazard in Vacant Buildings

ROCHESTER, New York—Rochester Fire Chief John Caufield urged the city to take a portion of the $3.4 million budgeted for demolitions in 2009-2010 in order to conduct more board-ups instead, due to a spike in vacant structure fires last year.

There was a 36% increase in fires in vacant homes and other structures for the year 2008, rising from 85 to 116. There have been 31 fires in vacant structures from the beginning of the year through June 1st 2009.

Authorities are attributing the increase in fires to the city’s temporary suspension of all demolition work, following a criminal investigation targeting one of the city’s leading contractors, Sinisgalli, Inc.

Mayor Robert Duffy sped up demolitions after taking office in 2006, promising to wipe out a backlog of blighted properties which were driving down property values and were magnets for crime. The number or demolitions sharply increased to 247 that year, but have steadily decreased since.

Records show that in 2007, the city paid to demolish 214 vacant structure. In 2008, there were only 141 demolitions conducted.

“As soon as we stopped that aggressive demolition, (fires) went back up,” Caufield said.

In 2008, Sinisgalli Inc. was the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation that resulted in state charges. Three Sinisgalli employees allegedly improperly disposed of asbestos or attempted to do so. Asbestos, a deadly carcinogen, must be handled according to certain protocols, which Sinisgalli allegedly did not follow.

Sinisgalli was awarded the city demolition program in 2008, but since the asbestos investigation, contracted demolition work has slowly resumed, with the city aiding in some of the work as well.

City officials want to bring the demolition back to its earlier aggressive rates, but there are insufficient funds to knock down all the potentially dangerous vacant structures. Caufield is asking the city to expand and enhance the board-up program, securing more of the vacant structures.

Caufield said the vacant structures that bring fires are significantly dangerous to firefighters. “It’s just a whole list of problems,” Caufield said. “And once you get there at 3 in the morning, the place is going like a Roman candle and you don’t know what you’re walking into.”

The last fire Caufield fought was in 2000 in a vacant house on Weaver Street. While he was standing in the front doorway the two-level porch collapsed. The firefighter behind him was struck, and knocked inside. The debris crimped off the hose line.

“We want to protect the public,” Caufield said. “But we want to protect our folks as well.”