Garbage construction fire test.
16 Jan 2019

Sudden collapses during fires a very real danger for firefighters in new US buildings


Tests show newer homes can burn 8 times faster than older wood buildings, causing complete collapse in just three minutes:


Newer homes and retail buildings constructed from chip boards and other wood elements made from reclaimed waste materials may be cost effective to build with - but for firefighters and residents, these buildings can be deadly when a roof or supporting wall suddenly collapses much faster than expected.

Oriented strand board, commonly referred to as OSB, is often called "garbage construction" among firefighters in the United States. That´s not because the materials look bad, but because they are basically garbage when it comes to fire resistance.

UL and the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department  tested these building materials - and what they found is frightening.

New homes are often being built using compressed wood for floor joists. While this normally would not mean much to the typical homeowner, it means a lot to firefighters, reports News4Jax in Florida, US.


Oriented strand board

Oriented strand board, commonly referred to as OSB, is made of wood pieces that are compressed together and then glued. They are being used as support beams.


Underwriters laboratories, UL, an independent testing company, says it has discovered that these OSB beams burn 800 percent or eight times faster than solid wood beams, which were used to build older homes.

News4Jax put these beams to the test to see how quickly they burn. At the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department's training academy, firefighters set a controlled fire under two solid wood beams and two OSB beams. They were simulating a second-story fire.


Oriented strand board on fire


After just 3½ minutes, the OSB beam collapsed. The solid wood beam was charred, but still intact.

"By the time the residents wake up, call us and we get on the fire scene, 4 to 6 minutes have already passed.  This failed in less than that time," said Lt. Tracey Davis after observing the quick collapse. 

Davis said the fire melts the glue holding the compressed wood together, causing it to collapse sooner than the solid wood beams.


Residents need to evacuate these building long before fire department arrives

The quick collaps of the OSB beams comes as no surprise to Davis, who is a veteran firefighter with JFRD, adding that the old type of lumber will give lots of early warning signs:

"The old-fashioned lumber will start to sag. The new engineered lumber don´t give you any warnings it's just suddenly gone".

"Which is why he says it is so important that if a fire ever starts in your home, you get out immediately. Residents  need to evacuate themselves because we may not be able to get there in time to get them out," said Davis.


Firefighter dies when floor collapses

On Feb. 12, a firefighter in Macon, Georgia, was killed when he fell through a floor into the basement of the home. Three other firefighters were also injured, one of them critically.

"It's basically because the lumber failed. That's how dangerous our environment we work in is," Davis said.

We do not know if OSB beams were built into the home in Macon where the floor collapsed. In general, Davis said floor and roof collapses are considered widow-makers for firefighters, and they know from experience that OSB burns fast.


Have an escape plan

Since most homeowners have no way of knowing if their home has OSB beams, the best protection is early detection. Smoke alarms are the best line of defense to alert homeowners to smoke from a house fire.

Few families, however, have a plan in place that teaches everyone in the household what to do if there were ever a fire.

Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Firefighters' Association, said all families should have a plan that is practiced every month by every single person who lives in the home.

"Show your children where the entire family should meet outside the home if ever there is a fire," said Wyse.

He said the most important thing to remember is to get out of the house immediately. Children should not try to find their parent. They should just get out of the house.


Watch video of escape plan demonstration

Other ways to survive a fire:

  1. Wyse said to teach your children if they hear the smoke alarm to touch the doorknob to their room before they open a door. "If it's hot, don't open it," he said.
  2. Use a bed sheet or clothes to stuff under the door to prevent smoke from getting into the room, if you are trapped.
  3. Open a window or get out on a balcony if you cannot get out of the front door of your home. And yell for firefighters so they know where you are in the home.
  4. Make sure there is a smoke alarm outside every bedroom.
  5. For homes with more than one story, make sure you have a portable fire ladder.  It can be used to escape through a window or balcony. They are about $57 and are sold at most large hardware stores.
  6. A big misconception is that you can douse a comforter in water and use it to protect yourself from fire, if you are trapped. Wyse said that is not a good idea.  Anything wet will turn into steam and will burn you.
  7. You should have a fire extinguisher in your home, especially in your kitchen, since kitchen fires are common. Not all extinguishers are the same. Read the label to see where you should place it in your home. For example, extinguishers for kitchens are designed to put out grease fires and do not contain water, which can make it worse.
  8. Teach young children not to be afraid of firefighters. "Their gear can sound like Darth Vader, and they can look scary," said Wyse. "Many children run and hide under a bed. Tell them not to do that. Teach them that firefighters are their friends, go toward them, not away."

Fire alarm program

The Red Cross is currently working with local firefighters in the state to provide fire alarms and fire escape planning to communities not able to afford them.  It's made possible thanks to sponsorship from Wells Fargo.