Special Blog post by:
Azarang (Ozzie) Mirkhah, P.E., EFO, CBO
On December 4, 2006, International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) issued a “Member Alert” notifying their membership about the hazards associated with the light-weight 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. There is a proliferation of engineered floor systems in residential occupancies across the United States. Many newer residential occupancies incorporate lightweight, engineered wood or composite structural components, including trusses, wooden I-beams and lightweight flooring systems. In most cases, these systems are structurally sound and designed to support the appropriate loads under normal conditions; however, they are likely to fail very quickly under fire conditions.
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’s publication, On Scene, in a report titled “Underwriters Laboratories Receive DHS Grant“ indicated: “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently awarded Underwriters Laboratories (UL) a $991,900 Fire Prevention and Safety Research Grant to enhance understanding of the hazards to firefighters in structural fires and to provide data to further advance knowledge of current fire fighting tactics…..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. Additionally, searching the internet for “lightweight wood trusses”, you will find around 16,000 hits.
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”; and even a thesis by Gilead Ziemba, a graduate student in the fire protection engineering program at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) titled “Theoretical Analysis of Lightweight Truss Construction in Fire Conditions, Including the Use of Fire Retardant Treated Wood”. Additionally there are many more articles by well-known fire service leaders such as Vince Dunn; and Russ Sanders and Ben Klaene, who also in their book tiled “Structural Fire Fighting”, have mentioned concerns about the engineered lightweight wood construction failures under the fire conditions.
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 the wood trusses.
What contributing role does failure of these engineered lightweight wood constructions have on the national fire fatalities? Fact of the matter is that in the majority of the civilian fire fatality cases in this country, the lethal products of the combustion (smoke and heat) are the main cause of death in the victims, not the structural failures. Either the occupants are alerted and evacuate the house safely; or in the unfortunate cases, they fall victim to the smoke, and die of asphyxiation at the earlier stage of the fire progression. So then, who are the victims of these catastrophic structural failures? Our own firefighters.
Out of concerns for our firefighters’ safety, for many years, we in the fire service have written many reports and articles clearly depicting our deep concerns about the performance of these engineered 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% of all construction around the country is now done with lightweight wood trusses.
Yes, maybe I should have waited for the UL report to be out around the end of this summer, before writing this paper. But then, other than reiterating the catastrophic failures of these lightweight wood trusses under the fire condition, as have been previously indicated in the great reports of the past, by other national organizations such as USFA, NIST, or NIOSH; what else can we expect from this upcoming UL report?
The tests are being conducted and the report is being issued by the UL, the most well-known and respected product testing laboratories in the nation, if not the entire globe. Undoubtedly then, this significant report will indeed be a great addition to our arsenal and provide us with more ammunition in proving our concerns. But then what? What do we expect to change after this UL report is published? What specific steps and practical measures should then be taken to bring about the positive changes that we have been striving for so long? What’s it gonna take to address this significant hazard to the firefighters’ safety?
Don’t get me wrong; again, the UL report will be great in further documenting our concerns. But then, do we really believe that even if the UL report shows poor performance of these engineered lightweight wood trusses, that the construction world will eliminate their usage all together? No.
I am an optimist, and deeply believe that we can successfully address this problem. But then, I don’t think just by telling the wood truss manufacturers, homebuilders, and the building officials that they have a problem, that we have advanced the ball by much. Let’s face it, they have all 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 the problem.
We must have win/win solutions that allow them ways that they can continue building with these engineered lightweight wood structural members, and yet significantly improve the structural integrity of the roof and floor assemblies under the fire conditions.
Recognize that there are many points of intervention in this process that could address the problem of these engineered lightweight wood structural members failures under the fire conditions; preventing firefighter fatalities. Intervention using any of these points in the overall process described below would yield positive results. But then, doing nothing at all though is simply not acceptable. Yet, that is exactly what has been done during the past couple of decades.
Obviously, the manufacturers of these engineered lightweight wood structural members could 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 perform significantly better under the fire conditions. This 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?
The homebuilders and the construction industry could either utilize means of passive fire protection and enhance the fire resistance of the floor and roof assemblies; or rely on the active fire protection system offered by the fire sprinklers, to protect the entire building.
With the passive fire protection approach, they can install additional layers of gypsum boards to the bottom of these lightweight wood structural members, which would increase the structural integrity of the floor and roof assemblies for a longer period of time before the structural failure under the fire conditions.
With the active fire protection approach though, a higher degree of safety is achieved. By fighting the fire in the inception stages, residential fire sprinkler systems would provide for the life safety of the occupants, and better protecting the entire building and the roof and floor assemblies from the intense heat of combustion, prolonged exposure to which could result in structural failure. Worst case is, once arriving at the scene of the 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.
I believe that fire sprinklers are the biggest bang for the buck, since they provide a much higher life safety protection. After all, fire sprinklers not only save the lives of the occupants, but also our own firefighters. There are two major benefactors to this proposed solution; civilians and also firefighters. The enhancement to the civilian safety and the reduction of fire fatalities makes the minimal construction cost increases (1 to 1.5%) for the residential fire sprinkler systems much more palatable to the society.
Homebuilders, have these two solutions; both of which are definitely acceptable to us in the fire service in addressing the engineered lightweight wood construction failures under the fire conditions. But then despite knowing quite well that a major component of their product is a significant contributor to the catastrophic structural failures under the fire conditions; and that they have opportunities and options to address such deficiencies, why haven’t the homebuilders done anything? After all, what have they done thus far to address the problem? Nothing. Neither the passive, nor the active fire protection means to address the problem have been implemented yet. And why not? What’s it gonna take?
Homebuilders insist that they build strictly based on the requirements of the adopted building code. They are fast to point out that they are not the ones who write the building codes; and that the building officials are the ones who write the building construction codes nationally and then adopt them locally.
That brings us then to our very own fellow public servants; the building officials. Building officials are responsible for the fire protection and life safety of both their public and the responding firefighters. Their role is the most crucial, and their building construction codes are the most instrumental point of intervention in the process, that could definitely yield positive results in addressing our firefighters’ safety concerns.
The building officials through their code development process, could incorporate 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. But then, what have the building officials done thus far to address this problem in their building construction codes? Why not? What’s it gonna take?
Up to now, I discussed the various points of intervention, from the materials, to the building codes, and all the way through the construction of the buildings, where other players involved, 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. Bottom line is though, that we have got to start somewhere to put an end to this problem; and no there is better time than now.
But then, what could we in the fire service do to reduce such firefighter fatalities; especially considering that there is an inventory of more than one hundred million existing homes around the country, majority of which were constructed with these lightweight wood trusses? Fire service gets involved in the very last part of this process, when the fire is raging in the building. And we are the only parameter in this equation that is significantly and adversely impacted. Yes, we are the ones fighting the fires, and the victims of the catastrophic structural collapse of these lightweight constructions. Then the question to be asked from the fire service leadership is; what should we do to reduce our firefighter fatalities due to the catastrophic failure of these engineered lightweight wood structural members?
Obviously, merely 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 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, I know that 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. But then, we should also remember our commitment is to save lives, and that also includes our own. And remember that historically, all around the world, and certainly here in our own country, fire departments were first established to prevent large scale conflagrations that burned vast city blocks, if not the entire city; and not the building of origin itself, since that would have been written off as a complete loss in the very first place.
But then, now with all our Personal Protective Equipments (PPE) and technology, we tend to risk more with the intent to save more; which puts us at a much higher risk. I certainly appreciate our highest commitment to our public’s safety. But then, if 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. Buildings are disposable, lives aren’t; and that goes the same for our firefighters’ lives too.
There are those in the building construction industry and in the code development processes that consider firefighter fatalities as “an acceptable loss” associated with the hazardous profession of firefighting. They believe that the risk of firefighters dying in responding to fires is just an inherent hazard of the profession. They state that these are hazards and risks that the firefighters were well aware of when they first signed on with their departments, and took the oath to protect their public and their communities.
They ask, how many firefighters die in the structural fires around the country; or how many fires do you fight every year? About a hundred a year nationally; and that is about two per State per year, right? And most of them die either from not wearing their seatbelts; or from the heart attacks, right? That is absolutely negligible statistically, they say. They insist that the building codes are written to only provide for the minimum reasonable protection for the occupants. And that there is no need to do anything more, because it would only increase the construction costs, and make the homes less affordable.
If only I had a nickel for every time I have heard this line of logic from my building official friends! That, my friends, is exactly why the fire protection requirements in the building codes; particularly with regards to the lightweight construction are so inadequate for the firefighters’ safety.
Then to address this problem, fire service must focus on changing the national building codes. We must heavily participate in the International Code Council’s code development process. Recognize that despite only the governmental representatives (building officials and the fire officials) having the right to vote for the code change proposals; the building construction industry and especially the homebuilders have a tremendous influence in the building code development process. The depth and degree of the homebuilders’ influence is most evident in the International Residential Code (IRC) that regulates the construction of the one and two family dwellings in our country. And needless to say, in their arena, the cost of construction is their primary motive, rather than the firefighter safety.
To them, the engineered lightweight wood construction failures could occur day in and day out, and the fire service could write tons of more papers about it for many more years yet to come; and they would still continue to build with those lightweight wood trusses without any changes at all; just as they have done for the past few decades. Why?
Simple, to the homebuilders cost appears to be their prime concern. Of course they pass the costs directly to the consumers; yet, they believe that life safety code changes, add construction costs for them which they can’t easily recoup. Consumers are willing to pay more for the aesthetic enhancements to the building, or better carpeting and countertops; but expecting them to pay more for an additional layer of fire resistive material at the floor and roof assemblies or for the fire sprinkler system is simply not practical; homebuilders would say.
Thus to the homebuilders, code changes that add to their construction costs do not make good economical sense. That is of course, not unless the significant negative costs associated with remaining with the status quo forces them to change. Simply stated, they will continue to build the same exact way, unless there is a cost disadvantage, which would force them to change.
What do I mean? Let me use a couple of analogies from the business realities in corporate America, to better explain my points. The analogies mentioned here, are from the private sector and the manufacturing fields, and not from the building construction industry or the public sector regulatory process. Yet, the basic concept applies just the same. And that basic concept is that there are liabilities associated with product failures. Whether it is the failure of the whole product, or any components or parts of it, the companies are still responsible and are held accountable for them.
One such example is the General Motors (GM) fuel tank fires. Back in the 70s, GM had problems with their fuel tank designs that caught fire in collisions which contributed to several fire fatalities. In their July 10, 1999, article titled “$4.9 Billion Jury Verdict in G.M. Fuel Tank Case” New York Times indicated: ‘‘The jurors wanted to send a message to General Motors that human life is more important than profits,” Brian J. Panish, the lawyers for the accident victims, said. Mr. Panish said that the gas tank on the 1979 Malibu was only 11 inches from the rear bumper; in some earlier models it had been more than 20 inches away. He said the trial testimony showed that it would have cost General Motors $8.59 per vehicle for a safer design but that the company had decided it would be cheaper to settle any lawsuits that arose. One critical piece of evidence, he said, was a memorandum written by an Oldsmobile engineer, Edward Ivey, in 1973, in which Mr. Ivey estimated that fuel-tank fires were costing G.M. only $2.40 per vehicle.“
Obviously, GM’s 1973 cost/benefit analysis, proved that paying for the fire fatality lawsuits at the distributed cost of $2.40 per vehicle, was by far cheaper than to spend a distributed cost of $8.59 per vehicle to redesign the tanks and fix the problem. But then, GM couldn’t have even fathomed that they would have to pay $4.9 billion in 1999, did they? Few fatalities here and there were “an acceptable loss” to them. That is of course until that critical mass was reached, where the public would no longer tolerate such manufacturing risks at the cost of their own lives. And that was when the status quo was finally changed and was not acceptable anymore.
Again one can find a similar legal conclusion with Ford and their exploding fuel tank designs for their Pintos in the 70s. You might also recall the Ford Explorer rollover problems with their Firestone tires back in 2000.
On September 6, 2000, in an article titled “Firestone, Ford under fire” CNN Money reported:
“I would like to know how it could take us 10 years, dozens of lives, numerous lawsuits, substantial consumer complaints, tire replacements overseas and repeated expressions of concern by an insurance company before any action was taken to initiate an investigation into the safety of a product being used by millions of American families,” Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Transportation subcommittee said. “Simply put – the American people deserve better.” The Senator was indeed right that “the American people deserve better.” Our concern for the fire and life safety in homes where millions of Americans raise their families is just the same. I think our elected officials should ask similar questions about the lightweight wood construction. There are many points of intervention all along this process, and as explained previously, nothing has been done thus far. If our public and our elected officials were aware of these hazards posed by the lightweight wood trusses, they would be just as concerned as Senator Shelby and demand a solution, won’t they? And that is our responsibility in the fire service to better educate them.Yet, in another more recent episode in corporate America litigation cases, back in November of 2007, the pharmaceutical giant Merck settled 27,000 lawsuits related to their arthritis drug Vioxx, which apparently added to the risk of heart problems. In their November 9, 2007 article titled “Merck Agrees to Settle Vioxx Suits for $4.85 Billion” New York Times reported:
“Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market in September 2004, after a clinical trial proved that it increased the risks of heart attacks and strokes. But internal company documents showed that Merck’s scientists were concerned about the risks of Vioxx several years earlier. And a large clinical trial that ended in 2000 also showed that Vioxx was much riskier than naproxen, an older painkiller sold under the name Aleve.”
I am sure that you can find thousands more of such cases in corporate America; some with even more direct relevance to the public sector regulatory process and the construction industry.
I am not a lawyer; but as a simple layman, it appears to me that there were a few simple, yet major questions that significantly contributed to the final outcomes of these lawsuits. It seems that the most important factors were; when did they find out about the problem? How long they knew about the problem? Could they have done something to address the problem? And then, why didn’t they take any steps to address the problem?
Now, how would the truss manufacturers, homebuilders and building officials answer such similar questions? After all, for years they have all been very familiar with the poor performance and probability of catastrophic fire failures of these floor and roof assemblies constructed with the engineered lightweight wood structural members. And again, there were several points of intervention that they decided not to intercede.
Here is my point. It might not be now, but then maybe 10-15 years from now, just like the GM case with their gas tank fires, or the Ford and Firestone case, where failures of a single component of the overall product resulting in fatalities; there could be litigation brought against the truss manufacturers, homebuilders, and even the building officials, by the families of the fallen firefighters who lost their lives or got injured in fires as a result of the lightweight construction failures under the fire conditions.
I have a feeling that similar to the Ford and Firestone litigation, we would see a lot of finger pointing between all players involved. The wood truss manufacturers and the homebuilders would probably try to dodge any liabilities by claiming that they were not one the ones who wrote the building construction codes. As bogus as that might sound, they would claim that they were just manufacturing those wood trusses, and building those houses, merely in full compliance with the adopted building code. And, as a matter of fact, they don’t even have the smallest say in the code development process, since they don’t even have the right to vote on the building code proposals; and that the building officials have the exclusive right to vote on the building code proposals. So they would toss the ball into the building officials’ court.
The building officials on the other hand, would probably claim that type of engineered lightweight wood construction for the floor and roof assemblies were the dominant method of construction and the industry standards and practice all across the country, for the very many years. But then remember, so was using asbestos and the lead-based paints in homes all across the land for decades, right? And what happened then? Building codes are not Bibles. The building construction codes were proven to be wrong before, and have exposed many Americans to health hazards. Are asbestos and lead-based paints allowed in the building code now? No. Would the building officials be liable if they allow those same dominant construction practices of the previous years now? Sure they would.
Building officials tend to believe that if the provisions contained in their code allows for practices such as utilizing the engineered lightweight wood trusses; then in approving such construction methods, as public servants, they are immune form any liabilities in discharge of their duties. The very long “Liability” section of the construction codes, Section 104.8 of the 2006 edition of both the International Building Code (IBC) and the International Residential Code (IRC), is clearly reflective of such views:
“The building official, member of the board of appeals or employee charged with the enforcement of this code, while acting for the jurisdiction in good faith and without malice in the discharge of the duties required by this code or other pertinent law or ordinance, shall not thereby be rendered liable personally and is hereby relieved from personal liability for any damage accruing to persons or property as a result of any act or by reason of an act or omission in the discharge of official duties. Any suit instituted against an officer or employee because of an act performed by that officer or employee in the lawful discharge of duties and under the provisions of this code shall be defended by legal representative of the jurisdiction until the final termination of the proceedings. The building official or any subordinate shall not be liable for cost in any action, suit or proceeding that is instituted in pursuance of the provisions of this code.” The many references to the phrase “this code” in this long code section; clearly intended to provide the building officials with the perception of immunity. They believe that as long as they follow “this code”, then they are protected in a legal cocoon afforded by their jurisdictions.
Obviously, this section could not guarantee that the building officials or their jurisdictions would not face any litigation; but then if they do, the jurisdictions are supposed to pick up the tab. While that thought might be comforting to some building officials, to many others that should be a chilling reminder that their perceived “bulletproof vest” is only as good as the caliber and quality of the “legal representative of their jurisdiction”.
Why aren’t the building officials, homebuilders, and truss manufacturers appear not to be the least concerned about such possible litigations then? Because, proving civilian fatalities as a direct result of the lightweight construction failures under the fire condition is rather difficult, if not impossible. After all, most civilian fatalities die of asphyxiation. And also, the fact that in most fires, the occupants’ behavior or negligence could have, to some degree, contributed to the final outcome.
With civilian fire fatalities out of the equation, then that reduces the number of possible litigations to only a limited number of firefighter fatalities caused by the catastrophic structural collapses under the fire conditions. And as we speak, there are not that many of them going around; are there? Why? Primarily due to the fact that we in the fire service have never focused on resolving such issues through the litigation channels.
Besides, to prove a malice or negligence tort case in court, all four (4) elements of, Duty, Breach of Duty, Legal Causation, and Injury or Damage, must be proven. Considering that normally fires destroy any/all evidence, establishing direct legal causation might not be an easy task. And that is exactly, why the truss manufacturers, homebuilders, and building officials, appear to roll the dice on the probabilities of such litigations. Not because they don’t know about the problem or what is wrong, but because they believe that the odds of winning in the court are stacked in their favor.
It seems that they take this calculated risk which has worked well for them for the past couple of decades, doesn’t it? Just like GM with their fuel tank problems in the 70s, they seem to be playing the odds. But then look at the GM case a couple of decades later in the late 90s. And remember, that just like the McDonald’s hot coffee case of a few years back, all it takes is one darn good lawyer; and the rest is case law history, as they say.
If you don’t think that could happen in the fire service, then think again. Times are changing. Just take a look at the litigations associated with the wild-land fires of a few years back; the firefighter death during fire training in Baltimore last year; or even the recent Charleston, S.C., furniture warehouse fire catastrophe of last year.
Would those tragedies and then subsequent litigations have a tremendous impact on how we in the fire service conduct our business in future? It sure will. Will it have a direct impact on the various agencies and jurisdictions involved? Definitely so. Would it have a ripple effect all across the country? It sure will.
Would they have an impact on the code development process and result in more stringent life safety and fire protection requirements in the both the building and the fire codes? Certainly. Code changes are direct results of tragedies, and the extent of modifications is directly related to the magnitude of the tragedy and the associated litigations. The bigger the catastrophe; the more significant and stringent are the enhancements in the codes. Just remember the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people which resulted in lowering the occupant load thresholds for the fire sprinkler requirement in those types of Assembly Occupancies.
Let me explain a couple of points very clearly. No, I am not promoting merely taking the litigious approach to solve the engineered lightweight wood construction fire failure problem. All I am saying is that if the players involved, continue disregarding the firefighters’ safety concerns, just as they have done for the past couple of decades, then this could, and more than likely probably would happen; in the not too distant future.
I strongly believe that these types of problems could, and must be resolved through the appropriate building code development processes, with cooperation from all involved stakeholders, to reach a win/win solution; rather than through litigations and the court process.
But then for achieving a successful win/win solution; there must be some giving, and there must be some taking by all involved. For a couple of decades, we in the fire service have raised our deep concerns, and report after report have been written by major national agencies in support of our concerns. The UL study due later this year is only the most recent one of such studies. It is time that we in the fire service recognize that, we can write report after report, until the cows come home; but since there are no enforcement mandates behind them, nothing gets done. To use an analogy, these reports are just like the resolution that United Nation (UN) passes day in and day out; symbolic in nature with lots of good will, yet not enforceable, since there are no teeth.
As mentioned previously, there are several points of intervention in the process that could address the problem. All stakeholders must realize that doing nothing at all, is no longer acceptable. For the past two decades, the wood truss manufacturers, homebuilders and the building officials have resisted making any attempts to modify the building code requirements to address this problem. If cost is their prime concern, then maybe the possible litigation costs should also be incorporated in their cost/benefit analysis upfront rather than later; just as GM, Ford, and Firestone learned from their cases. Maybe then, they would view the available options to address the problem such as, truss design improvements, additional fire resistive protection, or the residential fire sprinkler system, much more favorably.
I know, the jokes all around the country, are quite reflective of our society’s sentiments about our legal processes, and their views of the lawyers. I share some of those views, just like the rest of you. But then, I believe that just as the bottom-feeders have a very important role in the order and balance of our natural system; lawyers play a very important and integral role in our American way of life and our democracy. And from that very perspective, I respect and appreciate their work.
What is their contribution to our democracy? Lawyers keep individuals, and even more importantly, corporate America, more accountable for the safety and quality of their products. Sure, there certainly are many flaws with our litigious society. But then, product liability protects the public by holding the corporations more accountable for the safety of their products; most of the time, without even the need for the excessive regulations and direct involvement from the government. Litigations have reminded corporate America, that if their bottom line is money and profit is their prime mode of operation; then their liability and the litigation costs are the counterbalancing factors that they must seriously consider.
What’s it gonna take? That is my question to the truss manufacturers and homebuilders. Other than litigation, how else would they address the deficiencies associated with their engineered lightweight wood structural members and their methods of constructions? Why haven’t they done it after more than two decades? They need to tell us, how can we reach a win/win solution to allow them to continue constructing with these engineered lightweight wood structural members; and yet enhance our firefighters’ safety? Open up a constructive dialogue and just tell us how. Let’s work together to get it done. However, they must recognize that doing nothing at all, is not acceptable anymore.
Wood truss manufacturers must know that, we are not trying to impact their market adversely, or create restrictions and limitations on the use of their products. All we are looking for is better and safer truss design and better construction methods. At the very least, 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 in fire conditions. That’s all. 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 gonna take?
Let me clearly state that I agree with my homebuilder friends. Homebuilders are absolutely correct. Whatever solution they choose to solve this problem, is going to cost money; one way or another. Whether they chose the passive fire protection approach, by installing additional layers of gypsum boards to better protect the floor and roof assemblies; or installing a residential fire sprinkler system; there are additional costs involved.
The estimated additional cost would probably be around 1 to 1.5% of the total construction cost. But then remember, that cost is not coming out of the homebuilders’ pocket though. Just like any other additional other costs such as land, materials, labors, fees, etc; homebuilders pass it along directly to the consumers anyway. Homebuilders might need to recognize that besides the direct costs associated with the fire property loss; there are probable costs associated with the civilian and firefighter fatalities litigations also. And those are the costs that they have ignored in their calculations for far too long.
By the way, have you ever noticed that there is never “a good time” for the homebuilders to spend for the life safety and fire protection enhancements? Whether the market is up and they are reaping record level profits, as it was a few years back; or they are down, just as it is now because of the market saturation with foreclosures due to the sub-prime rate crisis; homebuilders always hide behind the façade of cost. Homebuilders claim that our regulations increase the price of the new homes, making them less affordable to the public, thus depriving them of the American dream of home ownership. With all these many people all across the country, that can no longer afford their mortgages and are facing foreclosure of their homes due to the sub-prime rate increases; I wonder if anyone would take such homebuilders’ claim seriously anymore.
Simply stated, sunshine or rain, riches or rags, the homebuilders excuse is always the same, cost. This appears to be indicative that they are bent on doing nothing at all, for as long as possible; of course not unless they are forced to change. Again the homebuilders need to tell us, how can we reach a win/win solution to allow them to continue constructing with the engineered lightweight wood structural members; and yet enhance our firefighters’ safety? Open up a constructive dialogue and just tell us how this problem should be addressed. Let’s work together to get it done. But again, the homebuilders must recognize that doing nothing at all, is not acceptable anymore. So then, what’s it gonna take?
What’s it gonna take? 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. Nationally, building officials view the homebuilders as one of their four “strategic partners”. That is indeed great for the building officials as regulators and enforcers of the building code, to have a very good and professional relationship with the major stakeholders in the industry that they regulate. But then, what about their obligation to the safety of the public and our firefighters?
None of the options; whether the passive fire protection enhancements approach by means of installing additional gypsum boards, or the 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? Especially, considering that they would have much safer communities. That being said, we are all ears to hear the building officials’ real reasons for opposing our fire safety code proposals to address the engineered lightweight wood construction fire concerns. The building officials must tell us how many more reports and how much more proof they need to address our firefighters’ safety concern with these lightweight construction in their building construction codes. What’s it gonna take?
What’ it gonna 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 catastrophic 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. Around the world, in most other countries, fire departments don’t go offensive and rush inside immediately. It is time that we take note of it. That is a big paradigm shift that must come down from the top leadership of the fire service.
What’s it gonna 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” and as “collateral losses”. Firefighters must recognize that even better than their PPE, the best way to protect them in their interior firefighting operations; is to enhance the fire protection features of the buildings, to afford them more time and a much safer environment for accomplishing their tasks. That could only be done by the full force and active participation of our firefighters in the national building code development process.
What’s it gonna take? Certainly a heck of a lot more than just writing reports alone. Then, why am I writing yet another report? Because based on our lack of success thus far to change the building codes to address our concerns, maybe it is time to reevaluate and diversify our approaches in solving this problem.
Why am I writing this paper now rather than waiting for the UL report to be published later this year? 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 and be there in full force to vote for the adoption of the residential fire sprinkler proposal. Installing residential fire sprinkler systems in the new homes, could address our lightweight construction concerns in the new homes. Besides, remember, “Fire Sprinklers Save Firefighters’ Lives Too”. It’s time to act.