Residential Fires: The Most Dangerous Fires You Will Face

Multiple firefighter fatalities at large commercial fires attract the attention and scrutiny they warrant. However, the fire service must also recognize that most line-of-duty injuries and deaths occur in single- and multiple-family dwellings during...


Multiple firefighter fatalities at large commercial fires attract the attention and scrutiny they warrant. However, the fire service must also recognize that most line-of-duty injuries and deaths occur in single- and multiple-family dwellings during routine, "bread-and-butter" fires. A review of...


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Multiple firefighter fatalities at large commercial fires attract the attention and scrutiny they warrant. However, the fire service must also recognize that most line-of-duty injuries and deaths occur in single- and multiple-family dwellings during routine, "bread-and-butter" fires.

A review of 22 investigations conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program between 1997 and 2009 illustrates this issue: These incidents involved fires in residential buildings that resulted in 28 fatalities and numerous injuries. These incidents can be linked to rapidly spreading fire in areas of unprotected wood construction, the collapse of unprotected dimensional lumber or the collapse of lightweight engineered wood components.

In addition, fire departments nationwide have experienced numerous near-miss incidents involving lightweight structural components and truss construction; the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System has documented more than 80 reports of such incidents. Near-miss incidents involving buildings with weakened or collapsed structural components are not accurately recorded in the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) data-collection system. Without modifications to NFIRS, we will continue to lose the ability to diagnosis how serious this problem has become for the American fire service.

The fire service has been aware of the hazards associated with lightweight construction for decades. Numerous fire service representatives have conducted small-scale burn tests to demonstrate their concerns regarding the structural stability of engineered lumber in fire conditions. Literally dozens of articles have been written by some of the most notable authors in the fire service, but until recently, we lacked the scientific data and statistical evidence to quantify the anecdotal evidence from numerous fireground events. Engineered lumber manufacturers understandably submit for testing only those assemblies for which they expect to achieve the desired passive fire-resistive ratings. Current model building codes allow unrated, or unprotected, assemblies (i.e., wood covered with non-rated sheathing materials or exposed wood) to be used in residential construction, particularly in single-family homes. Unprotected wood assemblies, assemblies without active or passive fire protection measures, are proving to be inherently unsafe.

Because the use of lightweight and engineered assemblies has become virtually the exclusive means of constructing floor and roof systems in residential buildings, the fire service must develop a better understanding of how these assemblies behave under fire conditions. It is also imperative that we test these built assemblies in a scientifically valid and quantifiable way so that the results can be used to effect changes to building codes and construction practices.

Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), in partnership with the Chicago, IL, Fire Department (CFD) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), was awarded funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program to investigate the hazards faced by firefighters when confronted with lightweight and wood-constructed residential buildings. The results of tests comparing the fire performance of conventional and modern construction will improve the understanding of the hazards of lightweight construction and assist incident commanders, company officers and firefighters in evaluating fire hazards and allow a more informed risk-benefit analysis when assessing life-safety risks to building occupants and firefighters.

The findings of this research have been developed into a web-based training program for the fire service. This free interactive program is at www.ul.com/fireservice, access online fire service training and take the interactive training program titled, "Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions." Given the changes in how buildings are now constructed and how modern materials burn, survival may depend on how firefighters pay attention and respond to the results of this work.

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