Along Laurel Avenue, one property stuck out among the rest to Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers Denise Garland and Eileen Lavin, as they took pictures of its dilapidated house. The volunteers, wearing bright, neon yellow jackets worn by CERT members, were exploring vacant single-family residences on March 4 to test and catalog information using the Office of Emergency Management's damage assessment software.
Deputy City Administrator Bill Goddard said the CERT assessments will help first responders in their response and recovery efforts after a disaster, such as a hurricane, tornado, flood or fire. The information also provides required documentation for support from state and federal governments following disasters.
"If a hurricane came through, we would send this team out [and] they would take a picture of the house that could be digitally located on a geographic information system map," said Goddard, also the director of the city's Emergency Services. "That information would be made available to us and we would actually be able to plot every single vacant home in the city."
Over the weekend, the CERT drill sent its volunteer members to abandoned or foreclosed structures in Laurel, where teams of two assessed and photographed the structure's location, physical condition and yard debris on iPads using the emergency operations software "Firehouse." CERT program manager Stephen Allen said six groups visited at least five homes provided by the fire marshal's office in their list of vacant single-family homes previously identified throughout the city.
The list originally reported 571 abandoned or foreclosed townhouses, condominiums and single-family homes, Allen said, but was narrowed down to 269 structures that haven't been assessed. Out of the 269 structures, 59 were identified as single-family homes.
CERT volunteers visited 30 of the 59 vacant homes on Saturday and will work with the fire marshal's office to assess the remaining dwellings over the next two months.
"We've added six or seven items on their iPads so that they'll be able to do a 360-degree assessment of the building," Allen said. "It's going to help us ensure that the list the fire marshal has is, in fact, correct. … On a public safety front, it's critical that we know what's out there."
Allen said he plans to have volunteers perform a similar drill in May, to assess commercial buildings within city limits.
The recorded information is filtered into the city's geographical information software database, said City Administrator Marty Flemion, which catalogs all commercial and residential addresses in the city of Laurel. Addresses were downloaded from the state's tax database to give city employees access to records of property ownership.
Flemion said the database has been carefully constructed over the last 20 years, using basic information found online through the state or Google Earth. However, sensitive data, such as the owner's personal information, is limited only to designated city employees, including local law enforcement and the fire department.
According to Deputy Fire Marshal Richard Blankenship, documenting the presence of vacant homes helps the fire marshal's office fulfill its duties to enforce building codes and address civil citations.
"Sometimes, people will call in, saying, 'I've noticed the house across the street has had newspapers outside for weeks,'" Blankenship said. "Sometimes, there will be something in the window that says the house is being controlled by this department. Then, we'll call them and tell them they need to clean it up."
When a structure is unkempt, he said, it may inform people that the property is vacated, which leads to break-ins or drug hangouts.
"Then, if somebody goes in and stays there for 30 days, the owner has to go to court to get an eviction notice to get them out," he said. "Even if they don't have a lease and just showed up, that's the way that works."
Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Brown, of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, said logging details of buildings' locations and structures gives first responders important information before their arrival; information that was previously unknown until they were at the scene. Knowing about prior construction work on the structure and its number of floors is crucial, he said.
"We don't get a whole lot of information when we go out on a run, so we have to ask for specific information," Brown said. "This will be beneficial, of course."
During Saturday's drill, Flemion said privacy is only a concern if the structure is occupied, in which case CERT members would take note of its occupancy and move along to the next location. The emergency management and fire marshal's offices would follow up with the owner at a later time, he said.
"We have rights through federal, state and local ordinances that allow us to enter the property for purposes of conducting visual inspections for safety-related issues," Flemion said.
"We looked at the ordinances we have in the city and came to the conclusion that we have the authority to address the vacant residential structures," Allen added. "One of the critical pieces of identifying the vacant structures is for public safety purposes. If we have a vacant house that's just been sitting there for years, it might have holes in the floor or the porch coming down."
City-wide CERT drill
On the 400 block of Laurel Avenue, a bent rain gutter rested in weeds below the vacant home's tattered green awing, where panel siding peeled under a row of windows. The brick walkway leading to the doorway was in better condition but tarnished the front's appearance when it reached the chipped blue paint on the warped wooden porch.
Garland held the iPad while Lavin tapped the screen to open a tab that read "paper accumulation," under which she noted mail was piling up in the residence's mail bin. As they walked into the backyard, both CERT members said they were surprised at what they found.
"This is not part of the best of Laurel, for sure," said Garland, standing over a small 1966 fishing boat. Weeds and tree roots grew inside the deteriorating boat, sticking out through tears in its tarp cover. "We have our lovely boat that looks like it missed the dock and we have some trees that are dead. It looks like this home was a happy home at one time, but it's not feeling it right now."
Nearby, a rusted white boat trailer was parked crookedly because of its slashed tires.
"A boat off the trailer in the yard is unbelievable," said Lavin, a Silver Spring resident. "It's sitting amidst all the ivy and next to a tree. I don't know how they got it there."
Lavin and Garland, a Hanover resident, said they joined Laurel's CERT when it formed around 2003 after developing an interest in actively serving the community. In addition to meeting new people, Lavin said her involvement opened her eyes to emergency preparedness.
"You [learn to] respond quickly. I like learning and activity," Lavin said.
"And you get to do things you wouldn't normally do," Garland said.
While the CERT members continued their assessment, neighbor Tim Sullivan watched and said he was glad the city is keeping tabs on its vacant homes. Sullivan said his family have lived on the street since 2014, where the disheveled home has sat abandoned since 2010.
"It's a bit of an eyesore for the street," Sullivan said. "Some of these homes date back to the 19th century. We'd love to see it turn around, have the property and home look nice and have somebody move in. We have a pretty good street."
Although finding the owner can be difficult, Garland said that CERT's work is a group effort to find and take care of these homes.
"Hopefully, after our exercise and things get documented, this house could be improved," Garland said. "We're trying to help Laurel to be its best."