Taller wood-framed buildings spark fire safety concerns
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The full-page newspaper ad, paid for by the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association (CCMPA), has ignited debate on the merits of wood frame buildings. The association has taken issue with an amendment to the Ontario Building Code, permitting wood frame buildings to be built up to six storeys high – two storeys higher than the previous allowance.
In a news release from September 2014, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said the changes “give builders a safe option that can help make building a home more affordable and support more attractive, pedestrian-oriented buildings that enhance streetscapes while continuing to protect the safety of residents and firefighters.”
While CCMPA’s ad campaign could be dismissed as fuelling fear as a way to support their industry, others, including Scott Marks with the International Association of Fire Fighters, have voiced similar concerns that wood buildings are fire hazards.
So are the benefits of wood-framed buildings extinguished by their risk of combustion?
According to James Hind, Fire Prevention Inspector/Fire Investigator at City of London, the majority of fires that have occurred in large wood frame constructed building have occurred during the construction phase, when a building is the most vulnerable. The risk decreases significantly by the time a building is ready for occupancy.
Hind points out that wood is, of course, combustible, and the amount of wood being used to construct these buildings is a considerable fuel load. A building made of steel can warp or fail, and high temperatures will weaken concrete material, but unless the temperatures are extreme, neither material will burn as readily as wood.
However, once a wood frame building is completed and the required dry wall separations, fire rated doors, and other fire-safety systems are in place, the risk of fire is the same as in any building.
So what can housing providers do to make wood-framed buildings safer? According to Hind, proper sprinkler coverage and alarm systems are essential. Another important consideration is having adequate water supply for the sprinklers and firefighting operations. Hind advises property managers to adhere to the fire safety plan, maintain the fire safety systems, to practice and participate in fire drills, and to ensure tenants are following fire-safety guidelines.
While there may be a splinter of truth to CCMPA’s inflammatory message, following a fire safety plan and preventing fires in the first place should be your primary concern, regardless of your building’s materials.