CENTERBURG — Local firefighters spent time this weekend learning how modern construction methods can create additional hazards during a house fire.
When the village of Centerburg purchased property containing a large, unfinished home at 4625 Lock Road, the Central Ohio Joint Fire District was given the opportunity to use the home for fire training. Because the house was built using modern, lightweight engineered construction, common in the new homes sprouting up, fire instructors were able to provide training which emphasized the special challenges firefighters face when a new home, or a home under construction, catches fire.
Knox County Career Center fire instructor Mark McCann, a lieutenant with the Washington Township Fire Department, said traditional firefighting techniques can be extremely hazardous when applied to newer construction.
“We have a chance to hurt more firefighters with older style firefighting tactics,” McCann explained. “We just can’t go running in and attack the fire anymore.”
Homes built from solid, heavy lumber using traditional construction methods burn much more slowly than their modern-day counterparts.
Prior to Sunday’s training fire, McCann walked through the basement and garage of the house, pointing out an unsupported beam running the full length of the garage under the first floor. In place of the 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s found under floors in older homes, plywood and boards made of wood particles held together with highly flammable glue were under the floors of much of the house.
McCann said the training fire would likely cause the floor with the unsupported, slightly sagging beam to collapse quickly.
“These homes will only last five minutes under heavy fire,” McCann said.
A 300-pound furnace hanging from floor joists was another hazard.
“We’re seeing this more and more with truss construction,” McCann said of the furnace, which was putting stress on the beams meant to support the floor above. “This is not uncommon and it’s very dangerous to firefighters.”
McCann said the floor could collapse under the weight of firefighters during a fire because it had already been weakened by supporting the heavy furnace.
Once lit, the training fires were extinguished by teams of three firefighters under the guidance of McCann and instructors Mike Ullom and Jay Louks from Columbus State.
Outside, about 40 firefighters from COJFD, Homer Fire, Hartford Fire, the Kettering Fire Department, Harlem Township Fire, and the BST and G Fire Department in Delaware County, remained prepared with more than 11,000 gallons of water in portable dump tanks.
“That’s what we would need if it should ignite one of these other buildings,” COJFD Chief Joe Porter said.
As McCann expected, once the fire spread to the portion of the house using the engineered lightweight construction techniques, the house collapsed almost immediately.
McCann said the new construction methods mean firefighters have to adjust some of their techniques. He explained that of the many benefits the modern construction methods offer, fire safety is not on the list.
“It’s great construction because it saves trees, materials and money,” he said. “But from a firefighting perspective, we have to approach the fire much more cautiously.
“If they’re going to build houses with engineered construction, they need to start using sprinklers, and smoke detectors are key,” he added.
He said firefighters lose precious minutes needed to save people inside burning houses if the houses are constructed from the newer materials. Those materials also emit much more toxic smoke as they burn compared to untreated wood smoke.
McCann said the fire service is mounting a nationwide effort to mandate residential sprinkler systems in new construction.
“That’s our big push, is smoke detectors and sprinklers, and it will save lives,” he said.