On December 4, 2006, IAFC issued a "Member Alert" notifying their membership about the hazards associated with the lightweight construction in residential occupancies. In that member alert titled "Caution Urged with Composite Floors" it was stated:"There have been several cases of firefighters falling through floors made of composite structural components and an even greater number of near-miss situations. This type of construction is being investigated as a contributing factor in a line-of-duty death.
There is a proliferation of engineered floor systems in residential occupancies across the United States. Many newer residential occupancies incorporate lightweight, engineered wood or composite structural components, including trusses, wooden I-beams and lightweight flooring systems. In most cases, these systems are structurally sound and designed to support the appropriate loads under normal conditions; however, they are likely to fail very quickly under fire conditions.
These components and systems are most often found in situations where applicable codes do not require any rated fire resistance between floor levels. They have much less inherent fire resistance than conventional wood-joist floor systems and conventional wood decking. Remember - many codes do not require any fire resistance in residential floors! In the several cases of firefighters falling through floors, those floors had been exposed to fire from below for relatively short periods."
This indeed is great that the fire service organizations act so promptly to notify all of us about the urgency of recognizing such hazards. But, then what is the next step? Just adding this new problem to the very long list of many other hazards that we must be concerned about when responding to a fire is not the solution. Notification of such hazards is the first step. But, then I believe that we must take strong measures to modify our national building codes to address this concern.
These lightweight construction materials are extremely popular with the builders. Builders consider them to be "better performing, more durable, and environmentally friendly" as far as building homes. However, their performance under the adverse fire conditions is rather weak, and that is the gist of our deep concerns. Obviously the builders would not willingly discontinue constructing with these lightweight trusses, and this problem will not be going away any time soon. So, we might as well try to find a long-term win/win solution that not only protects the occupants, but also our own.
I believe that one such solution is installation of residential fire sprinkler systems in all new homes. Reports indicate that these lightweight structural members perform rather weak under the adverse fire conditions. That being the case, we should then use the fire sprinkler technology to put out the fires, before these structural members are even exposed to the fire. Wouldn't that make a great deal of sense, and a win/win solution? Let them build with their lightweight trusses, but then mandate them to install fire sprinkler in these buildings, so that the trusses don't fail under the adverse fire condition.
Obviously this solution will not have an impact on all the existing homes throughout the country. But, then it will have a long-term positive impact on the 1.5 million new homes constructed around the country every single year. And if we don't address this problem now, these new homes of today, will be where we will be fighting the fires of tomorrow, and where we will be collecting our future fire fatalities and loss statistics.
But how do we go about changing those building codes to require the residential fire sprinkler systems in all the new homes? Just like anything else in our democratic ways in America, change will only come about through mass participation in the established process. To see any change at all, the fire service must participate in full force and with all their might in the code development process.