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Steel shutters on foreclosed homes slow down firefighters

Firefighters were hampered their efforts put out fire vacant building 6508 S Evans thhad steel plates covering windows doors.

Firefighters were hampered in their efforts to put out a fire in a vacant building at 6508 S Evans, that had steel plates covering the windows and doors. Thursday, December 20, 2012. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 26, 2013 6:09AM

Instead of simply breaking glass windows to vent and douse a blaze, firefighters are increasingly up against a patchwork of steel shutters intended to keep squatters and thieves from occupying a rash of vacant foreclosed homes left over from the housing crisis.

“It takes a lot more time to get into these buildings,” said Chicago Fire Department Chief of Special Operations Michael Fox. “And that means the fire spreads more and there’s more smoke.”

Bypassing a bolted steel shutter can take up to five minutes. Breaking a window takes under 10 seconds.

It’s a problem firefighters deal with regularly, including two weeks ago as they approached a two-and-a-half-story frame house in the 6500 block of South Evans that was gutted by flames.

“We’ve done a lot of research on how to get into these buildings, and our firefighters have special training and tools,” he said.

The number of houses cwith the steel shutters in unknown. The steel plates are more abundant in some South and West Side areas hit hardest by foreclosures.

“Every day there are more; we have no way of keeping track,” Fox said. “In the beginning we tried, but there is no way we can keep up.”

Plywood, which is simple for firefighters to bypass, can only be used for six months to cover entrances to a vacant home, after which the city requires steel coverings.

As of late last year, experts said as many as 18,000 vacant properties in Chicago worth an estimated $1.3 billion were in some state of foreclosure — primarily on the South and West Sides.

Citing the purpose of the steel shutters — to keep the wrong people out — Fox declined to reveal the techniques firefighters use to bypass them.

He said the process was harder than simply using an electric saw, which can slice through steel burglar bars commonly found on windows.

“How do the fires start? . . . That’s what we’d like to know. People are somehow sneaking into the buildings,” he said.

Luckily, though, no fatalities or serious injuries — of civilians or firefighters — have been linked to fires in hard-to-get-into vacant homes, officials said.

“We don’t want our guys trapped inside there, the fire is spreading and it makes a situation more unpredictable,” Fox said. “And it requires more manpower to deal with.”

“The steel shutters are serving a good purpose in terms of keeping crime down and people out,” said fire spokesman Larry Langford. “The bottom line is, we’ll always get inside the building.”

Contributing: Sandra Guy

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