Topic: COMMUNITY INTEREST
Matchstick Dwellings: How to Stay Safe
By Tammy Duffy
As the building industry evolves, it's constantly developing ways to create building materials and methods that can allow construction to be done in the most efficient way possible. Building professionals and engineers are working to decrease the time involved in not only the production but the installation, as well. There are towns that brag about their economic development, but in actuality they are developing matchstick hotels and fast burning dwellings. The focus on resident safety is not existent. It’s money over life.
Cost is clearly the driving force in these decisions. A physical example of this evolution has been the introduction of lightweight construction. It's brought serious ramifications to the fire service and how work is done on the fire ground.
A few weeks ago we all witnessed in the news the fire that occurred at the Edgewater dwelling in Bergen County, N.J. The Avalon at Edgewater complex -- built on the site where the Avalon River Mews was consumed by an inferno as construction neared completion in 2000 -- resembled a battlefield: shattered walls, scorched timbers, a haze of thick, choking smoke.
Edgewater Police Chief William Skidmore said Avalon maintenance workers were using a blowtorch to perform plumbing repairs in a first-floor apartment at about 4 p.m. when the fire began inside a wall. Instead of immediately calling 911, the workers first phoned their supervisor, leading to a 15-minute delay in the emergency response, Skidmore said. That decision, the chief said, “certainly didn’t help” in stopping the fire’s spread. “It was mostly a big contributor because it was a delay in the response of the fire department," he said.
The fire raged for nearly seven hours, destroying 240 of the complex’s 408 units. Two firefighters and two civilians suffered minor injuries. More than 500 people lost their homes, and about 520 others from neighboring buildings and houses were displaced temporarily. Christie, at the afternoon press conference, pledged his administration’s assistance. What will his assistance be, get the people back on their feet? That is not enough. There has to be changes made to the building codes in NJ to safeguard the residents of the state.
“If it was made out of concrete and cinder block, we wouldn’t have this sort of problem,” Edgewater Fire Chief Thomas Jacobson said. “It’s very difficult because once it’s in the walls and floors, we’re chasing it.”
This was not the first time a fire raged through the Edgewater complex. A fire in 2000 also involved wood-frame construction. That blaze destroyed four buildings. The fire alarm and sprinkler systems worked properly during that large fire at Avalon, and the two-building complex, owned by AvalonBay Communities, met all state and local fire codes.
State and federal standards require many public buildings, including schools and town halls, to incorporate studs made out of metal so that if a fire breaks out, the studs will be among the last things to fall, said Judson Moore, president of the New Jersey State Fire Chiefs Association and a firefighter in Cumberland County. Why is this same requirement not made in residential dwellings and hotels being built?
The real point of this article to create awareness; if you have not altered your approach and attack on these types of fires, you need to adjust immediately. A recent walk around a construction site in Hamilton , NJ (Mercer County) demonstrated a new matchstick hotel going up. (see attached photos). There are no metal studs demonstrated in the new structure that is going up. There are a few metal studs evident in the structure that was built first on the property, but that strategy has changed and its all wood. A conversation with local firefighters revealed that although these buildings meet code, but they are a large challenge for fire fighters. Those who chose to stay at these hotels will have no idea of the risks associated with the dwelling upon entering it.
When structures are made wholly of wood, collapses are often inevitable. Firefighters can’t fight that from the interior. They have to back out and fight it in a defensive mode, where they’re not going inside unless absolutely necessary to save lives. Those in the dwelling are on their own to get out.
As demonstrated in the fire in Bergen county recently, firefighters continued to douse hot spots in the wreckage. Due to the complex’s lightweight wood-frame construction, the fire spread so rapidly. The firefighters were all but helpless to contain it.
Although these lightweight construction materials reduce construction costs and have consistently demonstrated equivalent or even superior quality under non-fire conditions, the same cannot be said when these materials are exposed to fire loading during a residential structure fire. The result is progressive structural collapse due to the failure of these lightweight structures, resulting in firefighter injuries and death.
Over 1,700 firefighters have died since the year 2000 due to getting trapped in buildings due to collapse. (Source: FEMA) These firefighters were killed after becoming lost, caught or trapped in structures. Numbers like these should motivate us to ask why our current fire attack tactics aren’t sufficient to allow us to fight structure fires in a way that gets the job done, protects occupants and prevents us from getting killed in the process. Why are town leaderships allowing this type of construction?
Over the past few years, you may have noticed an increase in reports of firefighter close calls and fatalities related to lightweight construction, which has hopefully created better awareness of the issue within the fire service. It has forced departments to evolve further to differentiate between conventional framing and those using lightweight pre-engineered materials. There is extensive training programs that have been developed by UL and other agencies to assist the firefighters in their efforts.
The introduction of lightweight construction materials should have changed the way people operate on the fire ground. A series of tests done by the UL offered some glaring results. The failure time of a non protected 2x10 framing member was 18 minutes and 30 seconds after ignition time, and the equivalent member in a "TJI" failed in 6 minutes and 30 seconds.
There’s a contention today that building construction is getting more complex and creating more hazards for firefighters. This is true. But the real reason firefighters get killed in structures is that they’re operating with a set of assumptions about structural integrity that may or may not be true—even from one month to the next. This begs the question, “How much do you know about modern building construction?” How much do the Mayors and planning boards in towns really understand the fire hazards associated with these lightweight construction buildings? Are they only focused on allowing companies to come in and build and have lost sight on the safety of the people who will live and stay in the buildings?
How can you protect yourself and your fellow firefighters? Firefighters need to develop a culture of continual and evolving size-up. We have heard it a million times; "Size-up starts when the tones go out." But for me, size-up starts when you wake up in the morning. Size-up will also need to evolve over time to allow for changes in the fire industry, the construction industry, and changes in your own response area. We all need to take ownership of this.
Size-up for today is only as good as today. We need to educate our firefighters to be able to rapidly identify various types of construction, and the methods and materials utilized. Consider developing a system to notify responding firefighters of potential construction hazards. The towns that are allowing this lightweight construction to take place as part of their economic development should be forced by the state government to have mandatory training for their firefighters and residents.
Certain communities have already developed a hazmat-like placard system that allows responding firefighters to determine the type of construction upon arrival. The signage design and location would be in a predetermined location enforced by the local building and code officials. Children should be educated on this in the school systems as part of their annual fire safety curricula.
As mentioned, one aspect of building construction that firefighters must know about is lightweight wood construction. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) recognized that there needed to be more accurate and relevant information regarding lightweight construction so firefighters could achieve a safer operational environment. As such, the USFA partnered with the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) to develop a comprehensive Web-based educational program about lightweight construction components—information that has not been provided in an easily accessible format in the past. Included in this program is FireFrame, an interactive tool on building construction that was developed with the assistance of several state and local fire training systems.
Structural collapse is always a very serious threat, but we put ourselves in even more danger if we aren’t aware of the risks associated with the building materials involved. The USFA, AF&PA and IFSI have taken one important step in providing the fire service useful information about lightweight construction. Of course, in addition to lightweight wood construction we must also be aware of the issues associated with the “green” building movement, re-development that’s increasing densities, land-use policies that mix residential and commercial occupancies, change in the density and flammability of building contents, and more. Lightweight construction is a good place to start, but as I said before, we must know as much as possible about all types of buildings we enter to be as safe as possible.
Firefighting operations related to modern lightweight construction: lightweight steel, parallel chord MGP trusses, metal gusset plate wood trusses and lightweight structural steel, proper nozzle selection and working from protected positions.
As the building industry evolves, it's constantly developing ways to create building materials and methods that can allow construction to be done in the most efficient way possible. Building professionals and engineers are working to decrease the time involved in not only the production but the installation, too.
Cost is clearly the driving force in these decisions — and a physical example of this evolution has been the introduction of lightweight construction. It's brought serious ramifications to the fire service and how we work on the fire ground.
This article highlights some of the dangers of lightweight construction and offer some size-up recommendations. Over the past few years, you may have noticed an increase in reports of firefighter close calls and fatalities related to lightweight construction, which has hopefully created better awareness of the issue within the fire service. It has forced departments to evolve further to differentiate between conventional framing and those using lightweight pre-engineered materials.
The introduction of lightweight construction materials should have changed the way you operate on the fireground. A series of tests done by the UL offered some glaring results. The failure time of a non protected 2x10 framing member was 18 minutes and 30 seconds after ignition time, and the equivalent member in a "TJI" failed in 6 minutes and 30 seconds.
Firefighters should be trained in not only the construction types and methods, but also to understand the differences in fire behavior as a result of different construction methods. Building construction will determine the number of firefighters, apparatus and equipment needed to control fire, proper location of attack and vent, and whether the attack should be an offensive or defensive one.
Government and fire leadership must clearly understand fire progression and constantly assess the time the fire has been involved. There may be certain fires that may be an exterior attack on arrival just as a result of the amount of time the run was dispatched and the amount of time it took to respond.
The fire from the exterior may be visually "attackable," but the floor structure may not allow for an interior attack. Six minutes is a very small window to operate under. Use a defensive strategy whenever trusses have been compromised or exposed to fire, and remember basic risk reward concepts.
One major element of structural firefighting that’s changed in recent years: building construction. By now you’ve heard about how lightweight construction changes the way fires burn. But in many cases, we’re still approaching fires the same way we did 30 years ago.
Lightweight, wood-frame buildings burn extremely fast and hot. If the fire breaks out of the container (or room of origin), then it’s “off to the races.” As fire exits a container and vents to the outside of the structure, it will spread upward very rapidly, involving everything combustible in its path. Fire venting from a window or door will quickly burn into combustible truss voids. Once fire has entered the void, the roof decking will burn through and the truss may collapse in less than 5 minutes. The fire will also enter the overhead and/or floor void from within the container. A post-flashover fire will not be contained, and the fire and super-heated fire gases will penetrate through numerous pathways into combustible void spaces.
Fire in lightweight steel (non-combustible) buildings also spreads quickly. The rapidly growing contents fire will quickly heat the lightweight steel trusses and structural members, causing rapid collapse. These lightweight structural systems are often not protected by any fire-rated membrane or sprinkler system. (Note: The best time to discover this situation is while conducting inspections and preplanning.)
So why is fire behavior in lightweight structures so unique and deadly? Since the late 50s and early 60s, structures built of wood and steel, or any combination of the two, have utilized lightweight building design and lightweight structural building components, such as gusset plate trusses, plywood, wood I-beams, OSB sheeting and other engineered systems. Gone are the days of solid-sawn dimensional lumber joists and decking.
In addition, as structures get lighter in structural weight, they’re loaded with contents and furnishings that burn hotter and more quickly than ever before—a deadly combination for building occupants and firefighters.
What does this mean for us? We have NO time! Once the fire has flashed in the container, the container can no longer hold, absorb or contain the heat. As fire enters combustible lightweight voids, collapse is imminent.
Fire tactics taught more than 30 years ago were developed by firefighters who fought fires in conventionally built structures. Clearly, these tactics will not work in lightweight structures and, as such, we must modify our tactics.
Modifying tactics means operating from protected positions until we can control the fire and verify that fire is not in the combustible voids above and below us. We should not enter a structure without clearing the overhead void and the floor void.
Light-weight engineered floor systems provide architectural, economic and productivity benefits to the homeowner and the construction industry with assumed status quo in fire safety. However, under fire conditions, these light-weight engineered floor systems lead to greater risk of structural failure in a shorter time as a consequence of the reduced cross-sectional dimensions of the engineered products as compared to traditional dimensional lumber floor systems. So, despite the superior structural performance of these new products to traditional lumber construction under ‘normal’ conditions, the trend reverses in a fire environment. This is highlighted by the increasing number of firefighter fatalities due to collapse of these engineered systems under fire conditions. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a report, Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Fire Fighters Due to Truss System Failures, highlighting the risks of injury and death that can occur during fire-fighting operations involving engineered floor truss systems.
The construction industry is continually introducing new engineered products that provide better structural stability, allow for faster construction time and are more cost effective. Additionally, the market for green or environmentally sustainable building materials experienced a growth rate of 23% through 2006 and is expected to continue growing at a rate of 17% through 2011 according to Green Building Materials in the U.S. The increased market demand for environmentally sustainable products is driving engineered lumber products to further reduce material mass that could potentially result in even further concern for fire safety in building construction today.
There are also some amazing new products, if used in conjunction with these lightweight construction materials can make a huge difference in the event there is a fire. Watch this attached video below to see an example of this with the use of fireproof intumescent paints.
As residents and travelers we often we check into a hotel at the end of a long day traveling or playing at the beach or amusement park and don’t even bother to learn how to exit the room safely in the case of a fire. It is so important to be prepared in case a fire does break out. Surviving a hotel fire begins right after you check in. When you get to your room take a few moments to check out possible escape routes. A vast majority of new hotels are built using lightweight construction techniques.
When planning your fire escape plan remember:
Walk down the corridor and find the fire exits.
Never use the elevator in a fire - the call buttons may take you to a floor filled with smoke or flames.
Check the exits out to make sure they are usable! Do the doors open? Are the stairways clear?
Count the doorways and any other features between your room and the exits. If the corridor is dark and full of smoke, you'll need to know your way as you crawl along the wall to the exit.
If the hotel has a fire alarm system, find the nearest fire alarm. Be sure you know how to use it. You may have to activate it in the dark or dense smoke.
Check your room. It's important to know the layout of your room because you may have to stay in it if smoke in the corridor cuts off your escape. Many people have lived through a hotel fire by remaining in their rooms protected against smoke and gases while awaiting rescue.
Begin by putting your room key close to where you sleep so you can find it easily. You will need it to get back into your room if smoke or fire blocks your exit. You may want to keep it in your pants pocket or on the night stand.
Try the windows. Do they open? How do the latches work? Which one would you use in an emergency?
Look out the window to see what's outside. Is escape possible? You may be only a few feet from the ground and you can get out this way if the hall is not usable. If you are on an upper floor, there may be a roof or deck within safe dropping distance. Dropping from more than two floors usually results in injury.
If a fire does break out in the hotel, here are some things you should do:
1. Open a window to vent the room if there is any smoke. If you are on the first or second floor you may be able to drop to the ground safely. If you are up any higher, you are usually better off staying put. Although some people survive jumps form 35 feet or more, they are usually seriously injured.
2. Let someone know you are in room. If the phone works, call for help. Hang a bed sheet out the window to signal firefighters, but don't try to climb down.
3. Fill the tub with water. It might be needed for fire fighting. Turn on the bathroom fan if it helps to clear your room of smoke.
4. Wet towels and sheets. You'll need them to put around doors and cracks if smoke seeps in. Use your ice bucket to bail water.
5. Get fresh air. Make a tent over your head with a blanket at a slightly opened window to get fresh air. If the window does not open, you may have to break one out with a chair or drawer. If heat and flames are rising outside the window form a lower floor, don't breathe smoke-laden air.
6. As a last resort. Finally, if your room becomes untenable, you may be forced to make for the best exit. But remember to keep low.
Remember that few people are burned to death in fires. Most people die from smoke, poisonous gases and panic. Panic is usually the result of not knowing what to do. If you have an escape plan and adapt it to the emergency, you can greatly increase your chances of survival.
It's a good idea to always pack a flashlight in your suitcase. You may need it to guide yourself through smoke or darkness.
photos by DUFFY: Construction site on Rt. 130 Hamilton , NJ Mercer County