Know Your Enemy #37

Dec. 17, 2003
I have had several inquiries about information presented on the Internet that stems from a wood industry apologist.

I have had several inquiries about information presented on the Internet that stems from a wood industry apologist. It argues that the firefighters have emotion on their side but the truss industry has the facts.

Here are some facts. About 11 years ago I was invited by Joe Piscione of Truss Joist McMillan, to address a meeting of truss people in Salt Lake City. I showed a number of photos including a slide of an attractive three-story wooden office building. Then I "undressed" the building, a mass of trusses. I explained that in a fire, firefighters would get on top of this burning pile of kindling to cut a hole in the roof to let the smoke out so other firefighters could get into the building. Collectively the audience gasped.

Shortly thereafter the USDA Forest Products Laboratory started work on finding ways to make trusses safer. Their report noted that the work was in response to concerns raised by this writer. The final result is that to make a truss capable of passing the very weak ASTM E 119 test, the truss would have to be entirely sheathed in gypsum board. I saw such trusses n Alexandria, Virginia many years ago but the pictures are lost. The report suggested that since trusses collapse suddenly while sawn joists sag, it might be possible to design trusses with one part weaker so that the truss would sag before failure thus warning firefighters. Great thinking!

Joe Piscione of Truss Joist Macmillan spent his company's money to attend the IAFC meeting in Anaheim in 1992 and the additional fee for my pre conference seminar on trusses.

His letter is below. I suggest you save this for the time when you are presented with arguments like Grundahl's. Note that Mr. Piscione bought a copy of Building Construction For The Fire Service, third edition. I never received any correspondence from him or anybody else in his company arguing that anything in the book was wrong.

TRUS JOIST Macmillan
A Limited Partnership
September 16, 1992
Mr. Frank Brannigan

Dear Mr. Brannigan:

I appreciated the opportunity to attend your presentation in Anaheim. It gives me a better understanding of the fireman's perspective when preparing to fight fires in various building types. As a whole, I believe your comments on wood trusses, wood I-joists and connection were fairly stated. If your objective was to provide a better basis for tactical considerations for fighting fires under various structural conditions, then I believe you were successful.

Particularly, I think your advice about pulling out of building when the structure becomes involved in fire is sound advice. Firefighters need this kind of direction from a recognized authority.

One thing I wanted to do was to order a copy of your new edition of "Building Construction for the Fire Service".

If I can ever be of assistance, please don't hesitate to give me a call.

Joseph R. Piscione, P.E.
Manager of Product Acceptance


Apparently concern for one's fellow firefighter which annoys those whose concern is profit is the "emotion" Thy are not satisfied to announce the facts that trusses reduce costs and wooden I-beams provide more rigid floors. Some want to suppress the fact that such structures by their very nature provide less resistance to the force of gravity than some other structures when attacked by fire. In years gone by, the fiberboard industry threatened legal action to suppress publication of the hazard of combustible acoustical tile.

When I was in high school, a buff and student of fire protection disaster permanently influenced my thinking.

In 1932, eight firefighters died in the explosion of a flammable liquid locker in the basement of the opulent Ritz Tower Hotel where no expense had been spared. The hazard was apparent to anyone with the eyes to see but was of no concern to the code authorities and the owner. I learned that we must not rely solely on experience, which, in our field, is often blood and tears. We must seek out and analyze hazardous situations and determine the degree of acceptable risk.

In 1971 I wrote, "Beware The Truss" without any experience to cite, only an analysis of the structure and it's fire potential.

The argument is made that only a small percentage of LOD deaths are due to trusses. Decreasing response deaths (ask the Fire Administration for their publication on tanker deaths) would raise the proportion of truss deaths. Every cause of LOD deaths should be attacked vigorously.

My target happens to be the building as the firefighter's enemy.


One truss design might cause catastrophic multiple deaths, both occupants and firefighters. This has not yet happened, but the potential is there. Trusses are cantilevered out from the building to form an entrance /exit balcony or extended across the stair opening to form a stairway landing.

Fire stopping at the building line most likely is the unproven sheet of gypsum board "buttered" into place with joint cement almost surely pierced by power or video cable.

The occupants are left with no exit from the burning building. See sketch, p. 544 BCFS3.

The fire escape pioneered in New York City for buildings with three or more families a century ago has been eliminated. The industry might say "We only build the trusses. We do not design the building."

However they have been on notice of this hazard since 1992 when it was published on p. 544, BCFS3. The civil lawsuit potential and possible criminal liability might dissuade a builder who would not be dissuaded by "emotion".

A partial residential sprinkler system installed to prevent flashover in the occupied spaces, will not control a fire in the truss void (or truss loft, a word coined separately by Tom Brennan and myself). Such a fire occurred in Solomons, Maryland. The building was a total loss.

Those who regard us as being inferior beings argue, patronizingly, "our trusses are engineered", which is expected to make us peons swoon. Trusses cantilevered out must be specially engineered but I have not heard that any engineer considers the hazard to occupants. No one thinks of the fact that a fire in the voids can destroy the only way out. The fallback excuse for not saying anything is, "We met the code". This is an inadequate legal defense, especially when the hazard has been pointed out since 1992.


I have a dream from time to time. A fire is set up in an acquired building with an open truss floor above a basement with a typical fire load. A team of truss partisans is sent to take a line into the basement. Another to the floor above. I always wake to a start. Since the Lairdsvillle tragedy has shown prosecutors the way to criminal convictions for a stupid act, the training staff could go to jail if the probable tragedy occurred.

There is little to fear. I think it would be like an occurrence in my atomic energy days. I was conducting a typical fire plus live radioactive contamination drill at a state fire school. A former Atomic Energy Commission co-worker had gotten a job with the state health department. He showed up just as the drill was starting and loudly announced that he was there to protect the states' firefighters from any hazard that I might create.

I said fine! The problem is set up inside the structure that was then smoking significantly. The staff will suit you up with protective gear and a SCBA and you can go in and make your survey. Hr suddenly found out that he must leave for another meeting.

I may at this time of my life be an "expert in an ivory tower drinking iced tea", as one chief said. He objected to my writing that the statement by the IC of a 3 LOD fatality church truss roof collapse, that he would do the same thing again, was unacceptable. But listen to 40-year veteran, Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn, FDNY (Ret.). "No building is worth a firefighter's life."

We must know our buildings and the potential fire situation. When I started, fatalities were assumed to be a part of firefighter's lives. Nobody ever asked, "were they doing something useful and necessary?"

I first got the authority to act when I was a brand new Naval officer. I was assigned as Fire Marshal of the Naval Operating Base Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, in December 1942.

A Naval supply depot warehouse was a dreadful situation fire-wise. Letters to the command had had no effect. I was in the building preplanning with the six enlisted men of my fire company. I raised the decibel level to get the attention of a nearby officer. The next day I was ordered to report to the commanding officer of the supply depot.

He was livid at my badmouthing his building to some enlisted men. I replied that I recognized his authority to run his building but as I understood the matter, the Navy required that, as their officer, I had a duty not get those six men killed in his building. He became completely cooperative. In Navy parlance, I had put my finger on his promotion number.

At the age of 85, I still crusade on all fronts to save firefighters. Do not let the hazard of wood trusses distract you from other hazards. The biggest truss disaster to firefighters was a steel truss failure in a theater, where 13 firefighters died. Twenty firefighters got out 60 second before the collapse of a steel bar joist combustible metal deck roof (pages 302-8, BCFS#3)

There are many hazards to firefighters in buildings. Concrete buildings under construction, particularly those of post tensioned concrete that while curing, are not attached to anything, will totally collapse from a fire in the false-work, now usually wooden I beams. For a narrow escape from a wooden I beam collapse, provided to me by FDNY Chief of Department, Francis Cruthers, see p. 552, BCFS3.

Many firefighters have died in buildings with sawed joist floors. Good solid brick walls have killed hundreds. There are plenty of hazards. Use your thermal detector to learn if there is fire in the trusses. If there is, do not be on or under them.

A combustible building is expected to burn down. Trusses may make the result happen a lot or a little sooner than otherwise expected.


If you would like an autographed copy of Building Construction for the Fire Service, contact [email protected].

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