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An increase in wood construction is a danger to firefighter safety

With more wood structures, firefighters have to approach a fire differently and be aware of the collapse potential

Any introduction of heat to the lightweight wood product, and we have disaster occurring on our end.

The wood industry has succeeded in lobbying to increase the amount of wood product being used to erect buildings instead of steel. We are seeing an increase in the number of taller buildings being built entirely out of wood. It is not uncommon to see a five- or six-story building constructed out of lightweight wood products, and a few states are allowing even taller buildings to be built this way.

While this is good for the lumber industry, it is bad for the fire service. Any introduction of heat to the lightweight wood product, and we have disaster occurring on our end. We have seen this type of situation unfold in New York, where a building collapse killed two firefighters, and that tragedy could be repeated in these new-construction, wood-only buildings.

In the accompanying video, we have another example of a building under construction, fully engulfed with fire. This building is a lightweight, wood-constructed building reaching five stories in height. You will notice in the video how engulfed this building is; this is a real danger for us.

Since the building is under construction, there are no real fire stops, and the whole building is the fuel load. Once a fire begins in any part of the building, it does not take very long for it to spread. This is where the danger resides for the fire service: how quickly the fire can spread within these types of buildings while under construction.

By the time the fire department responds and arrives on scene, they are met with a fully engulfed building, ready for collapse. During construction of these types of structures, they are not fully finished, and the structural integrity of the building is not complete.

Staging considerations for apparatus, firefighter safety

When a fire department vehicle arrives at a scene like this, they will need to pay attention to how close they are to the building, making sure they are not within the collapse zone. The standard rule of thumb is one and a half times the height of the building.

However, this may change depending upon the rescue function. If it is needed, the aerial devices may have to be parked closer. This is another problem that arises for the fire service: trapped construction personnel.

We have seen the video in Colorado where a worker was trapped in a lightweight wood construction building, and had to jump to the balcony landing below before he was picked up with the aerial ladder, just before the whole front of the building fell away.

There is a very good chance construction workers could be trapped within the building due to the absence of a general fire alarm or notification system.

With these two factors present, the responding personnel will need to be vigilant about not being caught in the collapse zone, while at the same time trying to rescue any trapped workers.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.