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For St. Louis firefighters, comrade’s death spurs attention to 10K homes

In late January, the St. Louis Fire Department battled a fire at a vacant home in north St. Louis.
St. Louis Fire Department
In late January, the St. Louis Fire Department battled a fire at a vacant home in north St. Louis.

In St. Louis, firefighters have a particularly tough job because there are so many vacant houses — more than 10,000.

It’s often not even possible to tell which of these long-abandoned homes truly have no inhabitants.

“We have a fairly large unhoused or homeless population,” St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson explained on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “So when the weather gets cold, we know they're inside these buildings trying to stay warm.”

Among the fires the department responds to, nearly 40% are to vacant houses.

“So we try and take a look,” Jenkerson said. “Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago that look was fatal.”

Last month, firefighter Ben Polson was killed fighting a fire that had engulfed a vacant home in north St. Louis. Neighbors had indicated that homeless people might have taken up residence inside. Polson was searching for possible inhabitants trapped inside when the roof collapsed.

Polson’s death has now galvanized a renewed effort to assess and rate the structural integrity of the city’s vacant structures. Jenkerson hasn’t settled on what the final rating system will look like, but he said the assessments will exist in a shared database, accessible via the onboard computers in fire engines so firefighters can pull up the information as they arrive at the scene.

While the majority of vacant homes in St. Louis have private owners, the city owns more than 3,000 as part of its Land Reutilization Authority. The Krewson administration accelerated the pace of publicly funded demolitions in 2019 and 2020, and Jenkerson said continuing demolitions are an important piece of the puzzle.

“It improves the quality of the neighborhoods,” Jenkerson said.

Listen: St. Louis Fire Department plans to rate 10k homes

Even so, the chief understands that it doesn’t make sense to tear down too much. He cited Soulard as a neighborhood that’s benefited from people restoring homes once believed to be beyond repair.

“You look at some of these 2½- and three-story buildings in the area — they're absolutely beautiful, the construction on them, the architecture — they’re St. Louis,” he said.

Jenkerson said other city departments have been on board for the fire department’s assessments. He said the Building Division, Land Reutilization Authority, Assessor’s Office and Collector of Revenue are all doing their part to help.

However, he noted that the fire department needs different information than other city departments. They need to determine quickly whether it’s safe to enter a building, which means they need to take the lead on specific structural questions.

And even if the Building Division has condemned a structure, for example, “if somebody's still in there, we're going to try and get them out,” Jenkerson said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.