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LETTER: Homes' New, Lightweight Construction Is Fire Risk

In a Letter to the Editor of Pikesville Patch, a National Fire Sprinkler Association official warns that homes built within the past 20 years have construction material that makes it difficult for occupants to escape and for firefighters to extinguish bla

Following is a letter to the editor, sent in by Russell Fleming, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association

To the Editor:

The United States is on the brink of a fire crisis. New lightweight construction methods and materials are making it harder and more dangerous for firefighters to safely extinguish blazes and for occupants to escape safely.

It’s estimated that most homes built within the past 20 years contain these dangerous lightweight materials, which are designed to carry a greater load with less material by using prefabricated components. While these lightweight construction materials are touted as being more cost-effective and environmentally friendly, they also allow fires to spread much more rapidly, significantly reducing the time occupants have to escape a fire, and the time firefighters have to safely extinguish the blaze.

In my hometown of Carmel, New York, tragedy struck this spring when a fire claimed four lives, spreading so quickly that the entire structure fully collapsed within 10 minutes. Firefighters attributed the quick collapse to the home’s lightweight construction materials.

Materials used in today’s home furnishings are also contributing to the accelerated pace of home fires. Newer plastic fillings in sofas, chairs, and mattresses burn much faster than older fillings like cotton, reducing the time it takes for a room to heat to 1,100 degrees and reach flashover—the temperature point at which the heat in an area is high enough to ignite all flammable materials simultaneously. The tragic 2007 Charleston, S.C. furniture warehouse fire that took the lives of nine firefighters is a strong indication of just how dangerous these materials can be in a home during a fire.

While many states have rejected the International Code Council’s requirement for all new one- and two-family homes to include fire sprinklers, the fact remains that fire sprinkler systems would offset the danger created by lightweight construction methods and today’s synthetic furnishings, providing greater protection to building occupants and emergency first-responders.

Currently, California and Maryland are the only states that require fire sprinklers in new homes. I urge you to educate yourself on the current mandate in your own city and state and learn how to protect yourself, your loved ones and your community from the ravages of fire.

Properly installed and maintained fire sprinklers control and typically extinguish a fire before the fire department even arrives on the scene. More importantly, the presence of fire sprinklers mitigates the risk to individuals affected by the blaze, including firefighters who battle the fire.

Fire sprinklers are the only proactive form of fire protection, providing firefighters the time they need to do their jobs effectively and as safely as possible while helping to avoid potential injuries and devastating tragedies.

How prepared would you be if fire struck where you live? Fire sprinklers save lives and property.

Sincerely,

Russell Fleming

President, National Fire Sprinkler Association

Patterson, NY

845 878-4200

fleming@nfsa.org

Edward August 22, 2012 at 09:50 PM
Don't need an "international code" or UN inspectors comin around my country...
James T Reap August 23, 2012 at 01:19 PM
Since 1988, Chicago-area jurisdictions began requiring residential fire sprinklers. Today there are 77 jurisdictions and many thousands of protected single family homes and townhouses. This past weekend, a 6 year old home home in Glen Ellyn, IL was saved in this way. Before the fire department arrived their fire was completely extinguished by just one fire sprinkler. If those folks were reluctant about having to spend the money then, I'll bet they feel much differently about it now.
Janet Metzner August 24, 2012 at 01:39 AM
In Pikesville, do you feel like it's necessary to get sprinklers in newer homes that don't have them? Which builders include them or recommend them, that you know of? Builders are welcome to comment too!
Janet Metzner August 24, 2012 at 01:41 AM
Edward, how do you feel about Maryland requiring sprinklers in new homes? Does your home have them?
John August 24, 2012 at 02:00 PM
I'm origninally from a town (Carmel, NY) where a father, mother and 2 daughters recently lost their lives in a devasting fire in a lightweight construction home. They had NINE working smoke alarms. The fire started in the middle of the night. They were asleep if and when the smoke alarms sounded, they did not hear them go off until it was too late. The rubble that is left of that home is a reminder to other residents in that development. 3 families have already moved out in fear of what could happen to them in these tinderboxes. The homes were already built when they were purchased. Can you please tell me how the homeowner has the option of having sprinklers installed when the home is already built? And, just who would make the buyer aware of the lightweight construction and the very expensive option of retrofit? Why not install when these homes are built and the cost is the same as a granite countertop or a good carpet, which the homebuilder will happily install to get buyers to buy. If homebuilders will stop fighting this (as they did when smoke alarms were mandated) and educate themselves as to the benefits of fire sprinklers, they can tout them as an amenity to the home. WAKE UP! How many people have to perish in these homes? It is a matter of time until lawsuits abound. Mark my word, the same ads you see on TV from law firms asking if you've worked with asbestos will soon be asking if you live in a home built with lightweight construction!
VinyHater November 26, 2012 at 06:57 AM
I have nothing against sprinklers, but I don't consider them a solution to the problem of shoddily build houses. It's only a matter of time in many neighborhoods, before these systems require maintenance; some will get it while others will be quietly shut off. There is no reason not to require that all houses of lightweight construction be protected with things like in-tumescent paint or cementitious foam. I wonder if anyone in the building supplies industry is developing LW assemblies using some version of fiber cement rather than steel braces or OSB. Or, heaven forbid, we could just go back to using dimensional lumber and people would be able to enjoy usable, finish-able attics again.
Vicki Schmidt February 26, 2013 at 06:33 PM
Just a little more on the LWC topic: http://firechief.com/blog/determining-fire-behavior-modern-construction-furnishings-related-video

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