What's it Going to Take?

March 11, 2008
The Underwriters Laboratory (UL) is involved in further evaluating the performance of the lightweight wood trusses under the fire conditions.

On December 4, 2006, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (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...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."

Then, on October 1, 2007, in a report that was indicative of a strong systematic effort by the fire service to take a more scientific and in-depth look at this structural failure, IAFC in an article titled "Underwriters Laboratories Receive DHS Grant" indicated:

"Earlier research by the National Engineered Lightweight Construction Fire Research Project indicated that unprotected lightweight wood truss assemblies can fail within 6 to 13 minutes of exposure to fire....Lightweight wooden trusses, made with engineered lumber, are commonly found in 65 percent of new residential and commercial developments, according to the Wood Truss Council of America. Allowing for faster, more cost-effective construction, recent anecdotal evidence has indicated that lightweight wood trusses may become unstable and collapse more quickly in fire situations than traditional trusses."

The concern about the poor performance of the engineered lightweight wood construction under the fire conditions is nothing new. We have known about it for more than a couple of decades. Obviously, the very first name that comes to mind when talking about this subject is the legendary Francis Brannigan, and his famous Building Construction for the Fire Service book. There are many great reports, but just a handful of them are mentioned here.

Back in 1992, United States Fire Administration (USFA) did a report, titled "Wood Truss Roof Collapse Claims Two Firefighters (December 26, 1992)"; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did a report on April 2005 titled "Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Firefighters due to Truss System Failures"; National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) did a report on January 2007 titled "A Study of Metal Truss Plate Connectors When Exposed to Fire".

These reports basically indicate that the problem with these engineered lightweight wood structural members is that they are adversely affected by the fire much sooner than the denser building materials. And that typically, the metal truss connector plates (gusset plate - gang nail that penetrates the wood about a quarter of an inch) is the primary location of the structural failures in these wood trusses.

What contributing role does failure of these engineered lightweight wood structural members have on the national fire fatalities? Fact of the matter is that in the majority of the civilian fire fatality cases, the lethal products of the combustion (smoke and heat) are the main cause of death in the victims, and not the structural failures. Either the occupants were alerted and they evacuated the house safely; or in the most unfortunate cases, they fell victim to the smoke, and died of asphyxiation at the earlier stage of the fire. So, who are the real victims of such structural failures? Our own firefighters.

It was out of concerns for the firefighters' safety that many in the fire service have written numerous articles depicting concerns about the performance of these lightweight wood structural members under the fire conditions. But then, what have we been able to change thus far? Not much. If nothing else, the problem is probably even worse now, because as indicated by the IAFC, 65 percent of all construction around the country is now done with lightweight wood trusses.

Now the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) is involved in further evaluating the performance of the lightweight wood trusses under the fire conditions. Considering that UL is the most well-known and respected product testing laboratories in the nation, their report will undoubtedly be a great addition to our arsenal and provide us with more ammunition in proving our safety concerns. But then what? What do we expect to change after the UL report is published? Do we really believe that even if the UL report clearly show poor performance of these engineered lightweight wood trusses, that the construction world would immediately cease their usage of them and change their construction methods all together? No.

Then what specific steps and practical measures should be taken to bring about the positive changes that we have been striving for all along? Simply put, what's it going to take to address this significant hazard to the firefighters' safety?

I am an optimist, and deeply believe that we can and must successfully address this problem. However, I don't believe that just by telling the wood truss manufacturers, the homebuilders, and the building officials that there are serious problems with these types of construction methods, that we have advanced the ball by much. Let's face it, they have pretty much known about it already for the past quarter of a century. Instead, I believe that we must offer them options and solutions to enable them to successfully address our concerns. We must have win/win solutions that allow them ways that they can continue building with these engineered lightweight wood trusses; and yet, improve the structural integrity of the roof and floor assemblies under the fire conditions.

What's it going to take? That is the question that the truss manufacturers and the homebuilders should answer. How would they propose addressing the deficiencies associated with these engineered lightweight wood structural members and their methods of constructions?

They need to tell us their ideas on how to reach that win/win solution, to allow them to continue constructing with these engineered lightweight wood trusses, and yet enhance our firefighters' safety. Our friends in the construction industry need to open up a constructive dialogue with us and simply tell us how. Let's work together to get it done. However, they must also recognize that doing nothing at all is no longer acceptable.

Here is my two cents for whatever it is worth. I believe that there are several points of intervention in the overall process, from manufacturing of these trusses, all the way through completion of the construction, that should be focused on to address this problem. As described in the following paragraphs, simple proactive measures taken at any of those points in the overall process would yield positive results.

First, let's start with the manufacturers of these engineered lightweight wood structural members. Manufacturers could obviously utilize stronger metal connector plates that penetrate deeper into the wood. Or they could even invest in the development of a completely different type of joint connection mechanisms that could perform significantly better under the fire conditions. Couldn't they? Starting at the manufacturing process is a definite point of intervention to solve the problem, isn't it? But then, what have the wood-truss manufacturers done thus far to address this problem? Why not?

I want to make it quite clear to the wood truss manufacturers that we are not trying to impact their market adversely, or create restrictions and limitations for the use of their products. Not at all. All we are looking for is better and safer truss design and construction methods.

At the very least, the truss manufacturers could clearly specify protective means, such as providing additional fire resistive materials, or installation of fire sprinkler systems, to better protect their trusses and prevent structural failures under the fire conditions. At the very least that would shift their product liabilities to the end user, just as the labels do on most of the consumer products. Just, as simple as that. So what can the wood truss manufacturers do to address our concerns? Why don't they work with us to make it happen? What's it going to take?

The second major player in the overall construction process is our homebuilder friends, who build more than a million of these houses all across the country, every single year. The homebuilders have a couple of approaches available to them. Both of which are definitely acceptable in addressing the engineered lightweight wood constructions failures under the fire conditions. Homebuilders can choose either the passive fire resistance, or the active fire protection approach to address the problem.

With the passive fire resistance approach, the homebuilders could install additional layers of gypsum boards at the top and bottom of the engineered lightweight wood structural members. That would increase the overall structural integrity of the floor and roof assemblies in fire conditions for a longer period of time before the structural failure under the fire condition.

With the active fire protection approach though, even a higher degree of safety could be achieved. Installation of residential fire sprinkler system is the active fire protection approach.

By suppressing the fire in the inception stages, residential fire sprinkler systems would provide for the life safety of the occupants, and also better protect the floor and roof assemblies from prolonged fire exposure which could result in structural failures. Worst case is, once arriving at the scene of fire our firefighters would face a much more controlled fire, if not entirely extinguished.

From that perspective, this solution could enhance the safety of both the building occupants, and also our responding firefighters. The enhancement to the civilian safety and the reduction of fire fatalities makes the minimal construction cost increase (one to one and a half percent of the total construction cost) for the residential fire sprinkler systems much more palatable to the society.

Despite recognizing that a major component of their product is a significant contributor to the structural failures under the fire conditions, what have the homebuilders done thus far to address the problem? Nothing. Neither the passive, nor the active fire protection approaches to address the problem have been implemented yet. Why not? Cost, they would say.

Let me clearly state that I agree with my homebuilder friends. Whatever solution they choose to solve this problem, is going to cost money; one way or another. Whether they chose the passive fire resistance approach by installing additional layers of gypsum boards to better protect the wood trusses; or installing a residential fire sprinkler system, there are additional costs involved. Remember though, that this additional cost would not come out of the homebuilders' pocket. Just like any other construction costs, such as price of land, materials, labors, fees, etc; homebuilders simply pass it along directly to the consumers.

Homebuilders need to recognize that besides the direct property fire loss, there are also indirect costs associated with the loss of civilian and firefighter lives. And these are the costs that they have ignored in their cost/benefit calculations for far too long.

Homebuilders are quite familiar with the construction defect and product liability issues. They have faced many construction defect litigations due to the product failures and/or installation quality, and have been held liable and have paid significant settlements for such cases. But then historically, they have never viewed engineered lightweight wood truss failures under fire conditions as a possible product liability issue. Therefore, they don't incorporate such negatives costs into their cost/benefit final analysis and in their decision making process.

And it is precisely from that perspective of invincibility that they have consistently opposed any proposed solutions in the building code development processes to address the lightweight wood truss failures, and consider them as unnecessary and expensive. It might be time for the homebuilders to reevaluate their position on the product liability issue.

Once again, the homebuilders need to tell us, how they believe that we could reach a win/win solution, to allow them to continue constructing with these lightweight construction materials, and yet enhance our firefighters' safety. They should open up a constructive dialogue with us, so that we can all work together to address this issue. And again, the homebuilders must recognize that doing nothing at all to address our concerns is no longer acceptable.

Quite correctly, our homebuilder friends will insist that they build these houses strictly based on the requirements of the adopted building construction codes. They will point out that they are not the ones who write the building codes. They will remind us that the building officials are the ones who write the building codes nationally, and then adopt them locally. Which then, that brings us then to the most significant player in this overall construction process; our very own fellow public servants, the building officials.

Building officials, through their control and involvement in the development and enforcement of the building construction codes; are undoubtedly the most important player in the overall construction process. Through their codes, the building officials are responsible for the fire and life safety protection for both the public, and the responding firefighters. Thus their role is the most crucial, and their building construction codes are the most instrumental point of intervention in this process. And their support could definitely yield positive results in addressing our firefighters' safety concerns.

The building officials, through their code development process, could implement any/all of those three previously mentioned solutions; enhancing structural integrity during the manufacturing of the wood trusses, improving the fire resistive rating of the floor and roof assemblies, or requiring installation of the residential fire sprinklers. It is of importance to recognize that, none of these options; whether the passive fire protection enhancements approach by means of installing additional layers of gypsum board, or installation of the residential fire sprinkler in all new homes, would have any direct financial impact on the building officials at all.

So, if there is no dime coming out of their pocket, and if they don't have a horse in this race, then why would the building officials oppose these life safety and fire protection enhancements? After all, wouldn't those measures make for much safer communities? The building officials should tell us, how many more reports and how much more proof would they need to finally address our firefighters' safety concern with these lightweight trusses in their building codes. What's it going to take after all?

What is urgently needed, I believe, is the commitment of our fellow public servants, the building officials, to fulfill their commitment to safety of our public and our firefighters; by revising and enhancing the life safety and fire protection requirements in their building codes for the engineered lightweight wood construction.

By now, it should be clear that the building code is the most important document and the key to addressing any such construction flaws and deficiencies. Fire service must focus on changing the national building construction codes.

Recognize that just like anything else in our democratic ways in America, changing the building code will only be possible by our active participation in their established development process. We must heavily and actively participate in the International Code Council's code development process. The ICC Final Action Hearing for the 2009 edition of the building code is scheduled for September 17-23, 2008, in Minneapolis. To see any changes at all, fire prevention advocates and fire safety proponents must plan to participate in full force and with all their might.

I have discussed the various points of intervention, from the manufacturing of construction materials, through development of the codes, and then all the way through the construction of the buildings, where there other players involved, that could take measures to decrease the probability of lightweight construction failures under the fire conditions resulting in firefighter fatalities. Recognize that these proposed measures would only apply to new houses being built, and will not have any impact at all on the exiting homes. The important point though, is that we must start somewhere to put an end to this problem; and no there is better time than now.

Up to this point in the article I have discussed others' responsibilities in addressing the lightweight construction failure problems. But, enough of pointing fingers at others. Now let's take a deep look inside to see what we in the fire service can and must do, to reduce our firefighter fatalities. That is especially important, when you consider that there is an inventory of more than one hundred million existing homes around our country, majority of which, were constructed with those lightweight wood trusses.

Then the question to be asked from the fire service leadership is what can we do to reduce our firefighter fatalities resulting from such structural failures?

Obviously, looking at it from the firefighters' safety perspective, we in the fire service do have the option of staying out, and do the exposure protection in a defensive mode of operation. This concept, even though contrary to our current aggressive "interior attack" mode of operations, is a very viable option that fire service should seriously consider. Simply stated, when it comes to the lightweight wood truss construction, it might be best to stay out from the get go, and protect our own firefighters.

Considering our professional obligation and deep commitment in the fire service to saving lives, this might be a lot easier said than done. And I don't have the slightest ambiguity that we would still be charging in full force, if we believe that someone might be trapped inside and a life could be saved. But then, we should also remember our commitment is to save lives, and that also includes our own.

Simply stated, since these houses are built without much fire resistive rating and no active fire protection systems at all; then we should not be risking firefighters' lives and must stay out, if there are no civilian lives to be saved in the first place. Buildings are disposable, lives aren't; and that goes the same for our firefighters' lives too.

What's it going to take? The resolve of the International Association of the Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the other national fire service leadership organizations; not to tolerate any further firefighters injuries and fatalities resulting from the structural failure of these engineered lightweight wood constructions under the fire conditions. We should indeed risk a lot to save lives; but then that includes our firefighters too. Houses are being built with very minimal fire resistive features, and no fire protection systems at all; simply stated they are built as disposable. Saving such structures, is not worth risking the lives of our own firefighters; especially since they would demolish and tear them down to rebuild anyway. In most other countries around the world, fire departments don't go offensive and rush inside immediately. It is time that we take note of that. That is a big paradigm shift that must come down from the top leadership of the fire service.

What's it going to take? The might of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and their membership, to take appropriate political and legal measures, both nationally and locally, not to allow the construction industry to view firefighters fatalities as "an acceptable risk" or as "collateral losses". Firefighters must recognize that just as important as their PPE, the best way to protect them in their interior firefighting operations, is to enhance the fire protection features of the building, to afford them more time and a safer environment for accomplishing their tasks. But then, that could only be done by the full force and active participation of our firefighters in the building code development process. Their voices must be heard load and clear.

What's it going to take? Certainly, a heck of a lot more than just writing reports alone. Then, why am I writing yet another article? Because we still have a chance to make a difference in the 2009 edition of the building codes. And we don't have much time to waste. We must actively participate in the ICC Final Action Hearing for the 2009 edition of the building code that is scheduled for September 17-23, 2008, in Minneapolis.

Sure, the homebuilders will be there putting all their efforts behind defeating the residential fire sprinkler proposal for the 2009 edition of the codes. Then, we must greet them cordially and be there in full force to vote for the adoption of the residential fire sprinkler proposal. Installing residential fire sprinkler systems could address our lightweight construction concerns. Remember "Fire Sprinklers Save Firefighters' Lives too". It's time to act.

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at [email protected].

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