Confronting the Dangers Of Lightweight Construction

July 1, 2008

A recent series of fires is causing fire departments to take a new and harder look at lightweight building construction and the risk it poses to firefighters. The scope of the problem is uncertain, but it's believed to be widespread and points to the need for fire prevention officers to play a more active role in the drafting of building codes. It also calls for company and safety officers to be more aware in recognizing this type of construction when they respond to an alarm and for incident commanders to use different tactics in fighting this type of structure fire.

In the past few months, there have been at least one firefighter death, numerous injuries and some serious close calls when fires in residential buildings of lightweight construction have resulted in the fiery collapse of walls and floors. These were described as sudden and violent structural failures that occurred while firefighters were launching a normal interior attack or search-and-rescue operation in the early stages of a fire.

The origin of the problem is traced back to the early 1980s, when builders and developers found they could save costs by using lightweight construction materials, such as plywood, light wood supports and vinyl siding. The material was hung on a framework like an erector set with parts cut and glued together. At the time, many fire departments had no voice in building code requirements while others didn't have the inspection force to be aware that something potentially dangerous was happening. It's also a sad fact of life that fire prevention and safety is not a priority for many architects and builders; their goal is to design buildings to be sold at a low cost that will attract buyers. Now, 20 years later, these buildings are especially vulnerable to devastating fires.

In some cases, fires have started on the outside of a building caused by discarded smoking materials or barbeque ashes, quickly spread up the exterior wall, then trapped firefighters inside the building in a flashover or floor collapse. In the older buildings, age has caused the glue around joints to deteriorate, but the danger is not visible. Newer lightweight construction has even more glued areas and more material exposed to combustion.

"These materials have less mass so that they don't perform as well when it comes to a fire," explains Division Chief Michael Love, of the Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue Service. "Mass determines how a substance burns; more mass means slower burning, less mass is faster burning." It also means that firefighters have less time to complete the primary search-and-rescue operation and less time to get water on a fire. Everything has to happen faster when dealing with a building of lightweight construction -- including the evacuation of fire companies when a structure starts to become heavily involved.

Lieutenant Joe Berry retired after 32 years on the Fire Department of New York and has made lightweight construction his personal specialty since he first encountered the problem when they began rebuilding the Bronx in the 1990s. "We're getting the fires now from lightweight materials installed 20 years ago," Berry points out, "and we've got to change our tactics. If life is not involved, fight the fire from the outside. Don't send firefighters inside to risk their lives when a building cannot be saved." (See Joe's new column, Lightweight Construction, on page 183.) The problem is recognizing the danger when the first-due engine and truck companies arrive on the scene. Their members most often are the victims of these collapses and one suggestion is to post a warning marker on the front of structures built with lightweight construction.

Studies are underway to determine how serious and how widespread the problem has become. Those involved in various research projects include the University of Maryland's Fire and Rescue Institute, the Underwriters Laboratories in Chicago and the National Institutes for Standards and Technology. It appears as if the fire service nationally was caught sleeping on this issue when it began and didn't become aware that it had a problem until there were a number of fatal incidents.

That's why it's important that two fire officers are now on the board of directors of the International Code Council. "We have got to be involved in the code-drafting process," says Chief Love, "and the fire service is starting to exercise its options to be involved." That's one crucial side of the equation; the other is in your firehouse. Officers and firefighters have to be trained to look for the signs of lightweight construction every time they arrive on the scene of a building fire -- whether it's a single-family residence, a garden apartment or a townhouse. If the inhabitants are safely out of the building and fire is showing, you fight it from the outside. With lightweight construction, what looks like an "easy" job can suddenly become a disaster.

HAL BRUNO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and recently retired as chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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