Must-Read Info on Lightweight Building Construction

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You’re on a need-to-know basis.” If someone told you that you were on a “need-to-know basis” to fight fires, you probably wouldn’t take too kindly to that restraint. When it comes to our business, we need to know everything.

A lack of knowledge in the fire service can cause confusion and, ultimately, lead to fatal consequences. One issue in particular is the current debate about whether lightweight wood construction is responsible for excessive firefighter deaths and injury. For example, are concrete tilt-ups that fall over responsible for the death or injury of firefighters who were where they shouldn’t have been?

Call me old-school, but I learned about structural collapse by reading about events from as far back as the late 1800s (James Braidwood, chief of the London Fire Engine Establishment, was killed in a collapse on Toohey Street), and I’ve continued my study by examining events like the Chicago Collapse of Dec. 23, 1910, and a structure collapse in Mission Viejo, Calif., in the early 1970s. Today, I review every structural collapse involving an LODD posted to the Web.

What I’ve learned is this: Once they’re built, buildings will remain upright until they’re torn down, they burn down or fall down. If you think about it, every building we enter to fight a fire or climb to the top of to perform ventilation is at one stage or another of those potential outcomes for a structure—and this is when firefighters get hurt or killed.

411 on Lightweight Construction

There’s a contention today that building construction is getting more complex and creating more hazards for firefighters. This is true. But the real reason firefighters get killed in structures is that they’re operating with a set of assumptions about structural integrity that may or may not be true—even from one month to the next. This begs the question, “How much do you know about modern building construction?”

As mentioned, one aspect of building construction that firefighters must know about is lightweight wood construction. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) recognized that there needed to be more accurate and relevant information regarding lightweight construction so firefighters could achieve a safer operational environment. As such, the USFA partnered with the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) to develop a comprehensive Web-based educational program about lightweight construction components—information that has not been provided in an easily accessible format in the past. Included in this program is FireFrame, an interactive tool on building construction that was developed with the assistance of several state and local fire training systems.

Additionally, the USFA and AF&PA produced a training package in cooperation with the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) that includes information about the history of wood products as well as awareness-level guides about the components of lightweight construction, including trusses, glue laminated beams, I-joists, structural composite lumber, structural insulated panels and wood structural panels that are replacing dimensional lumber in many applications.

The following sites offer information about the program as well as links to downloadable versions of the awareness-level guides.

NIOSH also offers a useful site about preventing injuries and deaths due to truss system failures:

If you’re a station officer and you have any lightweight construction in your first-in district, you must review this information and get the information to your crew. It will help you better evaluate the risks involved in buildings of lightweight construction.

In Sum

Structural collapse is always a very serious threat, but we put ourselves in even more danger if we aren’t aware of the risks associated with the building materials involved. The USFA, AF&PA and IFSI have taken one important step in providing the fire service useful information about lightweight construction. Of course, in addition to lightweight wood construction we must also be aware of the issues associated with the “green” building movement, re-development that’s increasing densities, land-use policies that mix residential and commercial occupancies, change in the density and flammability of building contents, and more. Lightweight construction is a good place to start, but as I said before, we must know as much as possible about all types of buildings we enter to be as safe as possible.


Other USFA Research Projects

For a full list, visit

Detection, Suppression & Notification

  • Evaluation of Structural Ventilation Techniques
  • Fire Suppression of Hose Streams
  • Localized Suppression Systems for the Kitchen
  • Study of Municipal Water Supply Systems 

Health & Safety

  • Structural Collapse Prediction Technology and Building Performance Awareness of Lightweight Construction During Fires
  • Computer-Based Firefighter Trainer
  • Emergency Incident Rehabilitation (see “Rehab Revisted” August 2008 FireRescue)
  • Emerging Health and Safety Issues of the Volunteer Fire Service
  • Fire Department Communications Manual
  • Study of the Impact and Mitigation of Sleep Deprivation in Emergency Services


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