Faster-burning homes are a new normal for firefighters, making home safety measures like installing smoke detectors all the more important.
British Columbia’s building and fire codes set minimum safety, health, accessibility, fire and protection requirements for homes and other structures. These have generally made homes safer. But when a fire is involved, Sean Coubrough, assistant regional fire chief for the Columbia Shuswap Regional District (CSRD), said the time it takes for a home to be fully involved is less than it used to be.
“The reality is just hotter fires,” Coubrough said. “It’s something we need to be aware of and it’s something we train our firefighters.”
Part of this training at CSRD focuses on building construction. In a video presentation, Coubrough focuses on building classifications, building materials and current building techniques which, under fire conditions, are things firefighters need to be aware of.
As an example, Coubrough explains in the video how modern building techniques rely heavily on I-beams and timber trusses which, in the event of a fire, can “collapse early and suddenly.”
“These new wooden I-beams, they’re often made with these composite materials like particleboard that’s glued together…” Coubrough explains. “They’re great in terms of cost-effectiveness – lightweight, much easier for teams to construct these buildings, much faster… and economical. For us as firefighters, however, these structural components are known to fail very quickly, and it could be roof supports, it could be floor supports, and we have to be aware of that as well.
Newer constructions may have composite building components and materials made of wood fibers, plastics, or other substances bound together with resin-based glues or binders. Under fire conditions, these can be very combustible. Coubrough said they can also produce a significant amount of toxic gas – a risk exacerbated by household furniture.
Coubrough shows in the video how a fire in a home furnished with what he calls “legacy content” – typically older furniture constructed using natural fibers (wood, wool and cotton), is slower to become a structural fire than a fire inside a house furnished with “modern contents” – hydrocarbon based products (such as foam, rubber, nylon, rayon, polypropylene).
“When you hear the beast changed, that’s a great example of how it changed…” Coubrough comments in the video. “It’s not your grandfather’s fire. If you have relatives who were firefighters before, the type of fire they would have experienced would have had lower heat release rates and that gave them a chance to get in there and get some work done before the room does not flash.
Gassing is also greater in fires involving modern contents and is also an increased risk in homes built with composite materials.
These are all considerations that are taken at the scene of a fire to determine a plan of attack.
Coubrough noted that movies and television may have set unrealistic expectations for how firefighters respond to structural fires.
“We also have a saying in firefighting: we’ll risk a lot to save a lot, but we won’t risk anything to save what’s already lost…” Coubrough said. “Sometimes there are unrealistic expectations of the fire department about what we can do and what we will do when we get to the scene. The very idea of us breaking down the front door is simply unrealistic.
To homeowners, Coubrough emphasized due diligence, developing and practicing an escape plan, having enough smoke alarms throughout your residence and changing their batteries. twice a year, to have fire extinguishers handy and to keep important documents, including your home insurance, in a safe place – not necessarily at home.
“We certainly want people to understand that they’re safe and … if you do your due diligence on your side, you’ll be able to keep your family safe,” Coubrough said. “Our job is to protect our firefighters, and to get the public to understand a little bit more about what we’re going through on the fire front, that would be a great thing – to make people realize that we’re not going inside and that we do not enter because were scared. It really is a dangerous environment now. Things can be replaced, but firefighters cannot.
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