07 April 2008

Stick Houses Endanger Firefighters

A recent tragedy in the Cincinnati suburbs illustrates the potential hazards of unprotected stick construction. Thin pieces of wood burn very quick. If the wood is partially held together with glues and plates, they can collapse suprisingly early in a fire.

A picture of 5708 Squirrelsnest Lane, where 2 firefighters died last week when they fell to the basement:

There are thousands of replicas of this house in this region. This house was built in 1991, and probably had an unfinished or partially finished basement, which left the wood floor joists exposed to fire. A house like this could have had a manufactured product called a TGI or truss joist. TGIs are basically a mini beam with plywood as the web, and 2-2x2s as the top and bottom chord.

Houses continue to be built with ever thinning pieces of lumber, and they increasingly rely on glues to hold the structure together. This increases fire hazards:

In the event of catastrophic fire, TGI beams fail far more quickly than natural wood beams. In extreme heat, the glues that hold TGI beams together melts, the staples that fasten the beams pop out, and entire floors collapse without warning, endangering firefighting personnel and slowing rescue efforts. The International Association Of Fire Chiefs has spoken out against the use of TGI beams in all new construction.

There is a power point presentation that was being passed around last year by area firefighters that shows the following case:

Photo of modern house with minor fire:

Soon after the firefighters arrive at what appears to be a minor fire, part the floor collapses:

Photo of TGI's on rack:

Charred remains of TGI's in this house:

Noticed that the fire doesn't seem that extensive and there are still painted walls nearby.

Charred Hangers where the TGI's were attached:

Is this what happened in Colerain Township last week? Hard to say since the newspapers have written a dozen of articles about the fire, but reported few actual facts about the fire it's origin or what collapsed.

If you google words like "truss test burn" you will find dozens of films of fire tests showing manufactured lumber assemblies quickly failing in the presence of fire. But cheaper and cheaper materials are being installed in new houses every year. Simultaneously the size of new houses has been significantly increasing. Quality and safety are being cut in favor of size.


Radarman said...

A similarly constructed row house in the 1000 block of Cutter Street went up like a Roman candle in December. It was fast, furious, and very frightening.

Unknown said...

Interesting...I had no idea. Crappy reason to lose two lives. Thanks for posting this.

CityKin said...

radarman; I saw that burned building on Cutter last month, and it looks like it burned very fast, considering that the fire department is so close. The fire department in Colerain is also located very close to the Squirrelsnest Street fire.

The old Lincoln Court housing projects that were demolished in the West End were all concrete and could never have suffered such a fire.

Joe Wessels said...

I was at a media fire training day last October and the firefighters giving the training - including Capt. Steve Conn, who has been the spokesperson for the Colerain Township Fire Department in recent days - were very vocal about their concern for this new type of construction material.

They said they have repeatedly brought this to the attention of builders, building inspection officials and politicians with the power to change zoning requirements but said their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

This is a major problem, not only for firefighters, but for those who live in these structures if there ever is a fire. If you or your family are stuck inside there will less and less chance that you can be saved. And if firefighters try - like they want to try - they may end up dying as a result.

So, good on with this one, mate. I think it's good to bring this to the public's attention.

As for the Enquirer and others coverage of the Colerain firefighters death, I have decided that the local media has got away from "why" in their stories. They now instead stick to the "what." Why is that? I dunno. Broken business model, I suppose? Probably. We need better.

CityKin said...

The media hasn't even shown us a PHOTO of the house, much less told us what collapsed or why. All the coverage has been about the emotional toll on the firefighters and their family.

How about some facts about the fire itself?

Joe Wessels said...

I'm not sure why there are not photos, but I think it ties back into what the big media companies now believe is what their readers want: emotion. Who gives a crap about why it started? Show us some crying firefighters, dammit! It's made this profession (journalism) less and less fun. (And why I'm working to change it through starting something new to address it.)

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, here's one possible explanation. I'm writing my column in CityBeat this week about the tragedy and the brotherhood of firefighters. I went out to the house Sunday night. It's at the end of a relatively long private/shared driveway along Squirrelsnest. Since Friday, Sheriff deputies have been volunteering in 10-hour shifts to be stationed in the driveway to keep onlookers away. Only Colerain firefighers are allowed to cross the tape and approach the house, the deputy told me. No one is allowed to take photos, except fromt he public roadway which is probably 100+ yards away, and is partially obscured by some trees branches and another house in front of it. So, even with a good zoom lens it is probably difficult to get a good shot of the house. The Auditors photo is probably the best photo available. Don't know if that's why, but it's my best professional guess.

CityKin said...

Joe, for comparison, look at this story from Columbus about a fatal fire. One day after the fire, the paper has researched the car the family owned and the likely cause of the fire:

Jason said...

Great post! I couldn't agree more with your assessment of modern day construction techniques. I can't believe how cheaply made houses are now. The obvious thinking behind this is first costs...contractors/developers want to maximize the amount of money they make and minimize the amount they spend. But, also they figure its a waste to build houses any sturdier because they know that most neighborhoods have an effective lifespan of 25 yrs or less before everyone moves on to the next cornfield. Its the suburban way...As soon as a neighborhood starts "getting old" or starts filling with people from less well to do backgrounds everyone with money packs up and finds a new place to build a huge, cheap and ugly house with a homeowners association that makes them keep their yards sterile and their gardens exactly the same.

ThatDeborahGirl said...

Oh my. Living out this way, I must admit, I've been caught up in the emotion of the lost firefighters. There's not a business out on Colerain Ave that doesn't have a sign up for Robin and Brian.

I just assumed...so many things...never once thought to question something like this.