The fire safety industry is facing many changes due to the spike in construction and its growing use of lightweight materials for residential and commercial building. The use of these materials is gaining popularity because it is seen as a more cost effective, quicker and environmentally safer way to build, but research proves the risks might not be worth the rewards.
Research conducted by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), on structures built with lightweight materials has determined that from the time of ignition to the point of catastrophic structural failure could be as few as six minutes.
Six minutes doesn’t allow for much reaction time for occupants to evacuate or for the fire service community to rescue the occupants. In fact, there are some states that require placards on the exterior of the building and do not even allow the fire service to enter a structure that has been built using lightweight construction due to the inherent dangers associated with structural integrity during a fire. Raising the question – if lightweight construction is inherently unsafe, why has there not been a bigger push in requirements for early detection of smoke/fire?
When one is faced with six minutes from the time a fire is started to catastrophic failure, one must understand that time is of the essence to properly detect very early signs of a potential fire. Very early detection is the key to true survivability in the event of a fire – especially in a lightweight construction structure. The ability to detect a fire/smoke in its infant stages can be accomplished by using today’s air sampling systems and smoke detection technology. These systems allow for time to fully understand the threat, investigate, and properly evaluate the situation. In a worst case scenario where a lightweight construction structure is exposed to fire, these devices can provide additional time to notify occupants to evacuate and alert first responders of the hazardous situation before structural issues occur. These devices, coupled with a properly designed sprinkler system, which code has put on the forefront of commercial and residential building requirements, allows for the two systems to work in tandem to properly detect a fire or prevent the complete total loss of life and property. Sprinklers – while effective in containing a fire and protecting property – unfortunately don’t provide early detection of fire which is why code needs to require sprinklers to be coupled with early detection technology.
The bottom-line is that the use of light weight construction will only continue to grow in popularity because it’s less expensive, allows for shorter construction time and it’s better for the environment. Therefore, understanding the risks and taking the proper measures when installing fire and life safety systems is extremely important.