The State of Ohio has officially instituted a ban on using plywood to board up vacant or abandoned properties. Proponents say the new law, officially House Bill 463, will help fight blight in areas with many abandoned structures, but firefighters believe the ban may create unwanted challenges for putting out fires.
In lieu of plywood, many properties will now be secured with see-through polycarbonate panels, a practice known as clear boarding. Polycarbonate is the same material used for commercial airplane windows. Properties that are required to abide by this new law are those that are being sent through a new foreclosure process, recently initiated in Ohio. The federal government-sponsored mortgage association, Fannie Mae, has also been using the panels for several years. The clear polycarbonate panels are less unsightly and allow for views into abandoned buildings. They are also much more durable than plywood. They are said to be resistant to graffiti and are much more difficult to break through. This is where the fire department sees a problem.
While the panels may help keep out unwanted guests, fire departments are worried that they might inadvertently keep firefighters in harm’s way during a fire. While plywood can be broken through with an axe, the circular saw with the carbide blade is needed to effectively cut through the polycarbonate. And while the mounting hardware for the panels can include interior quick releases, not all firefighters are convinced.
“How long does it take us to deploy that saw to cut through that plastic? In the fire service, time is of essence for us. Life and death, not to be dramatic, comes down to minutes,” Lieutenant Matthew Herzfeld of the Toledo Fire Department told NPR in a January interview. “Imagine yourself with 70 pounds of firefighting gear on and you have zero visibility.”
Another concern of opponents is the price. While a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood costs around $20, a similar size sheet of polycarbonate with mounting hardware can cost $120.
Yet in towns like Youngtown and Dayton, plywood has become one of the most visible symbols of blight. Dayton alone has over 6,000 vacant structures. While these structures wait to be demolished or bought out of foreclosure they are often secured using plywood, effectively marking them as empty. While the polycarbonate will also mark vacancy, its impact is clearly less than plywood. Other cities, across the U.S., including Chicago and New York, are also considering adopting similar bans.