Squatter Resourcefulness in Camden

Vacant buildings are not as vacant as the term tends to imply

By Gabriel Angemi

Originally published 31 January 2011

Today’s harsh economic times notwithstanding, I know that there are a group of folks who may in fact squat by choice and live “off the grid” so to speak. Regardless of if they maintain employ or not is not always the issue as some people, for any number of reasons prefer to squat. They choose to oppose joining the rat race of mortgages, home maintenance, rental fees, monthly bills or what have you and simply go about their business in a well thought out, carefully picked place to set up the homestead. Some months back, I was off on holiday when Rescue Co. 1 was clearing from a small working box assignment and had gotten special called to this location.

At 1451 Federal Street, just west of and right along the Cooper River, lies the old Camden City Incinerator. While patrolling, Car 3 came across a column of smoke rising from the old smoke stack. The Deputy Chief had Elevens Dispatched to the scene, and when a small fire was discovered in a confined space (for lack of a better term) at the bottom of the stack, the Chief special called the Rescue and a Ladder Company. Hook & Ladder 2 responded since 3 Truck was still on a box assignment. A small mattress fire was extinguished and several squatters were encountered while operating at this location.

At the bottom of this mile long post there are some pictures of the mattress area, but it was clear there were several people living in this building and these pictures focus on one of their setups. A few squatters were ascending what is left of a partially collapsed second floor, making their way upwards as can be seen in the pictures of a collapsed concrete floor reinforced with rebar.

We did not attempt to go to the “upstairs” area but the basement level however had plenty for us to look at. We startled the man residing at this urban posh living establishment. Having scenic views, a loft, close to transportation and plenty of nearby recreation. The boss and I joked about that but the fact remains; vacant buildings are not as vacant as the term tends to imply. This cat has been here quite awhile, and his layout and design bear that out.

The shopping cart for traveling with resources was parked out front and draped with rain gear, stowed for its next mission. There were several habit trails leading to and from the squat in all different directions. Walking planks are in place, probably for when the river floods the place after a rainy high tide. The bed and night stand appear right inside the main entrance and are riddled with drug paraphernalia and used condoms. An office partition door sits at the ready to cover said entrance.

We had to use a collapsible ladder to descend into his abode. There were a handful of different means of egress scattered about the squat at all ends. One of which our guy used to split before we could talk to him. These openings were covered by wood, some were held in place by used tires and others were just barely covered at all. When darkness falls the unsuspecting person, say police or firefighter, would step on or in one and perhaps sustain injury.

This fellow was well stocked and prepared for most anything from sickness to intruders, mosquitoes to laundry. Never have we come across such a squared away squatter. He (or they as the case may be) had cases of water bottles. Laundered clothes hung from clotheslines strung throughout the area. Enough medical supplies were present to run a half-ass EMS unit. The pantry rivaled ours back at quarters. I did see him picking up some syringes before he made off.

Its a shame, we would have liked to speak with him to gather some intel for if and when we came back to this place for another incident. If your company is examining vacants for your preplanning pleasure, be mindful of sharps, liquids, lice, mold, bedbugs, scabies, piss, shit and vomit or any other myriad of infectious issues you are exposing yourself to once you enter these places. Although rare, some squats are booby trapped, usually minor in nature as opposed to vacants being used for clandestine drug operations or sales, which may have more serious and elaborate measures. Sometimes the occupied ones have tenants present when you come around, they may not discern between you and the police and react accordingly. These people are known to use drugs and there is no telling if you may have to defend yourself or not as you are encroaching on their turf. Its better to announce yourself and give them ample time to leave uncontested.

Finding squatters in commercial or residential vacant structures is pretty common these days in urban and suburban areas alike but it is not the only thing to note obviously. You must also be on your toes for the building itself is often times dilapidated and screaming for gravity to finally put it out of its misery. Older buildings may be at the end of their lifespan and the moisture content of the lumber and the adhesiveness in the mortar used in the construction may be suspect at best. Pre-planning these buildings can be just as deadly as fighting fires in them, especially during the winter months when an added live load of snow or ice may be just enough weight to compromise the structures integrity. If they are to be entered at all caution is a must and pay close attention to your surroundings.

Do not let the cameras flash fool you, it was very dark inside this mans home! Flashlights help but it is a good idea not to commit yourself to far inside the bigger buildings in your local unless you have good reason and plenty of daylight. Always be on radio to quickly report any problems you encounter and have something to defend yourself with. When something like this happens we try to go back and show the member that was off exactly what they missed so were all on the same page for next time. We consider it re-conning, and learning our city is one of the best ways we become more effective firefighters. Posting all the photos I have of this place is just not practical unfortunately, there are some good ones and the place was pretty impressive.

Down a walkway a bit and dropping a level down there was a mattress or two which was burnt to the springs. Did it spontaneously combust, or was it an accident lit by a smoker? Were children playing in there or was a drug users candle knocked over? I don’t have the answer.

How does one know if its righteous or not to commit personnel to the vacated structures in the urban cities of America that may or may not have occupants. This question is clearly relevant right now to the fire service.

Photos courtesy Gabriel Angemi

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Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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