Construction Under Fire
It should be of no surprise to anyone involved in the fire service that the modern built environment is continuing to trend at a rapid rate toward incorporating lighter and dimensionally reduced building
materials. Today, it is virtually impossible to find a
newly constructed building that does not contain at
least some type of engineered component or assembly
hiding behind the walls.
I realize that this is a topic that consistently provokes
strong debates. Before anyone starts to become defensive,
pro or con, regarding a department’s current operating
procedures relating to lightweight engineered construction, I want to make it perfectly clear that this article is
not meant to criticize these operations.
I’ve always been very vocal regarding my personal
belief that, with a thorough knowledge of building
construction, a strong understanding of fire behavior,
and an accurate size-up of both the extent and location of the fire, we can safely operate on and within
lightweight constructed buildings. My thoughts on
this subject were cultivated from the large portion of
my life that was spent swinging a hammer, the education and technical training I received throughout my
apprenticeship to become a journeyman carpenter, and
my experience working for an urban fire department.
Regardless of the varying opinions relating to light-
“NEW” LIGHTWEIGHT ENGINEERED CONSTRUCTION
weight construction, I sincerely hope that we can all
agree that the structures we are fighting fires in are con-
stantly changing, and this requires continual education
on and familiarization with both the strengths and weak-
nesses of existing and emerging engineered materials.
Lightweight engineered construction is not a new
subject; structural components such as lightweight
trusses, wood I-joists, and engineered lumber have been
around and incorporated into our built environment
for decades. I often find myself frustrated when I hear
people refer to it as “new” construction, especially when
these building materials have been around longer than
many of us have been involved in the fire service.
One example of this is the simple gusset plate. The
gusset plates we know today, sometimes referred to as
“gang nails,” are fabricated by stamping 18-gauge steel.
This stamping process leaves short teeth, 3⁄ 8 inch in
length, that are used to penetrate structural members to
fasten them together. Although conventional roof framing remained the dominate method for residential roofs
for much of North America well into the late 1970s,
these lightweight gusset plates were developed in the
early 1950s and can be found on lightweight trusses in
structures much older than we typically expect. This
reaffirms how vital it is that we intimately know the
buildings and types of structures that are found in our
communities and do not just solely rely on nationwide
overviews of construction methods.
The impact of engineered products
on the built environment