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NFPA Impact: Warnings needed for lightweight construction

Recent news reports recounting how firefighters have come close to losing their lives in fast-burning structure fires have also quoted eye-witness testimonials about how quickly homes are being completely destroyed by fire. Often, the witnesses have expressed complete surprise at just how fast the homes burned.

February 5, 2009
By Sean Tracey

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Recent news reports recounting how firefighters have come close to losing their lives in fast-burning structure fires have also quoted eye-witness testimonials about how quickly homes are being completely destroyed by fire. Often, the witnesses have expressed complete surprise at just how fast the homes burned. The general public has been slow to realize that there are few fire-performance requirements for their most expensive possessions – their homes. In addition, most people are not aware that the materials used in construction are hazards to fire services. These newly built homes should carry warning labels: Caution: enter at your own risk.

Many of the materials being used in new-home construction have no requirement for minimum performance in a fire. Take lightweight components, for example. The industry argues that because there are no fire-performance requirements in Part 9 of the building code these components do not have to be fire tested. It does not matter that the poor performance of these lightweight components in fires has been well documented. Research by the National Research Council on the fire performance of Canadian homes released on Dec. 15, 2009, analyzed a number of scenarios involving unprotected floor assemblies in basement fires. The time to failure condition for the lightweight floor components was between 35 per cent and 60 per cent shorter than for solid wood assemblies. The floors failed between five minutes 25 seconds and eight minutes 10 seconds versus more than 12 minutes for standard wood assemblies. (The study did, however, point out that the houses would have been untenable due to toxic smoke and obscuration before the floors collapse – this is just further substantiation for residential fire sprinklers.)

Additionally, the codes do not consider the need to protect first responders in Part 9 buildings. If all the occupants are safely out then there is no need for firefighters to enter the structure. If they do, they do so they at their own risk. This is counter to our communities’ expectation of the fire service. The problem is that the fire service may not be aware of the construction methods and therefore the potential dangers inherent to certain kinds of construction. A placarding system would forewarn firefighters and therefore, if everyone were accounted for, firefighters would not enter the structure. Instead, they would surround and drown the fire, as this is what the building code says they must do.

Fire services should push to enact municipal bylaws similar to those in many U.S. jurisdictions that require a building decal to warn of lightweight components or non-tested products. It is within every jurisdiction’s capability to require such a placarding system by municipal bylaw. It does not change building standards but under the fire code is a firefighter safety initiative. It has a side benefit of raising the awareness of consumers of just how poorly these homes may perform in a fire and may enlighten them to the need for residential fire sprinkler systems.

The 2009 edition of the NFPA 1 Fire Code introduces such a standardized placarding system called the Firefighter Safety Building Marking System. If adopted by a jurisdiction, it requires that a decal be prominently displayed showing the building’s construction type, the hazards of the contents, the presence of fire sprinklers or standpipes, occupancy life safety issues and special hazards. This is one example but other systems can also be used. Florida was the most recent U.S. jurisdiction to introduce changes to its regulations in 2008 requiring the placarding of structures with lightweight components. I am not aware of any Canadian jurisdictions taking a lead in this.

One argument raised by homebuilders to counter the demand for residential fire sprinklers is that consumers are not asking for them. This might be true because the public trusts that homes are safe and that there is a framework of safety systems in place. The reality is far from this. The building code does not reflect the public’s expectation of the fire services and there are few, if any, requirements for fire performance in single-family dwellings. If we require all new homes to be placarded with a warning label then perhaps home buyers will start to demand safety precautions as they ask why there are warning labels on their new homes.

We need to increase pressure on builders to be accountable for what they sell. Homes are, after all, the largest single purchases in one’s lifetime. Let us start requiring that all Part 9 structures with lightweight components, insulated concrete forms, spray-applied insulation and other non-fire-tested components be identified with a placard that reads “Caution: enter at your own risk.”


Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at stracey@nfpa.org


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