The threats of lightweight construction and modern home contents have been highlighted here for some time. Extensive coverage of the issue has now piqued the curiosity of the media, and they are asking questions.
A couple of weeks ago I was contacted via e-mail by Deputy Chief Borry of the Manheim Township Fire Department in Pennsylvania who wrote, “our department has been asked to provide an interview to our local newspaper on the hazards of lightweight construction…”
He asked for a copy of the free presentation provided by the Fire Sprinkler Initiative and what follows is an excerpt of an article - underscoring the challenges facing the fire service - that appeared November 17 in Lancaster online:
A few generations ago, homes were built with sturdy lumber and furnished with natural fabrics and wood. These days, almost everything's made of petroleum-based fibers, plastics and glue — and while modern materials might be more affordable, there's a price to pay for progress. Fire.
"With today's fire, by the time we arrive the building could be in a flashover state," says city Fire Marshal Dave Amico. Flashover, Amico says, is the hottest point of a fire — and it's the most dangerous moment for occupants and firefighters alike. "Everything in the room has reached a temperature where everything begins to burn," he says. "Violently."
Modern materials burn more quickly, generate more heat and emit black, toxic smoke, Amico explains. That means less time for occupants to evacuate a burning home. Similarly, according to Don Forry, director of code compliance for Manheim Township, homes used to seat floors on sturdy 2-by-10-inch or 2-by-12-inch lumber. Now, pre-engineered trusses — often built from a composite of nonwood materials — may burn more quickly. The trusses use glues and resins that can melt at high temperatures and allow longer gaps between supports, all of which means floors are quicker to collapse in a fire.
Testing*...has shown that a traditional lumber construction will give firefighters a good 18 minutes before a burning floor is likely to give way, Forry says. Pre-engineered trusses last about 6 minutes. "There have been several documented deaths and injuries attributed to those pre-engineered trusses," he says.
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*The studies on the threats of lightweight/engineered lumber and modern contents were carried out by by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), not NFPA.