January 18th, 2021

Building code changes spark firefighter concerns

By Lethbridge Herald on February 5, 2020.

Herald photo by Ian Martens - Construction continues at a five storey residence building near the college. Firefighters are raised concerns over plans to overhaul the Alberta building code to allow for construction of 12-storey wood-frame buildings. @IMartensHerald

Tim Kalinowski
Lethbridge Herald
Firefighters across the province and in Lethbridge are voicing their concerns with the Kenney government’s plans to overhaul the Alberta building code to allow for construction of 12-storey wood-frame buildings.
“Our concern is the safety, not only of the community, but of the first responders going into those buildings in a fire event,” says Brad Readman, president of the Alberta Fire Fighters Association.
The AFFA and Readman are calling for a halt to changes to the provincial building code regarding 12-storey wood buildings until a national building code review is completed by the federal government later this year. The current maximum in Alberta allowed for wood-frame structures is six storeys, and Readman says while it might be positive for the forestry industry to double that number it is not necessarily good for the safety of first responders and residents if a fire breaks out in such a structure. Readman says the provincial government has, thus far, not been taking into account firefighters’ legitimate safety concerns.
“Provincially, they seem to be going through with it no matter what,” says Readman. “We have lobbied the federal government now for years as a national association to include firefighter safety within the building code, and for firefighters to have a seat at the table to discuss our safety. With 12 storeys that’s high up, and not every community in Alberta has the staffing to respond to such an emergency. Bigger cities have those abilities, and you have the staffing, resources, training and trucks to do that. But the smaller communities around don’t necessarily have the capacity with an aerial apparatus high enough to fight those fires.”
Lethbridge Professional Firefighters’ I.A.F. F. Local 237 president Warren Nelson says even in Lethbridge, which has such an apparatus, there are tremendous dangers to fighting fires in tall, wooden structures.
“We have concerns with these large buildings solely being made of wood, and the potential for rapid fire-spread throughout these buildings,” he confirms. “Not only for evacuation of the occupants, but also going in there as firefighters we could easily be trapped if the fire got in behind us or into a stairwell we weren’t aware of and thereby cutting off our means of egress.”
“We do have aerial apparatus in the 100-foot range,” he adds, “but depending on access to the lot it greatly varies how high on the building you can reach. Even though we have a 100-foot ladder doesn’t mean we can reach the 10th floor itself. If we are parked out 100 feet from the building, say, our reach would only be sixth floor.”
Nelson points out the type of wood he is talking about for these large buildings would not be hardwoods: these would be lightweight timbers often made from glued laminates.
“We don’t object to changes in the code as long as any changes are done with safety as one of the concerns,” Nelson states. “I will add specifically to Lethbridge itself we also have the disadvantage of having the high winds here. While these wood-frame constructions are going up, they are susceptible to high wind loads which could cause collapse. And if there is fire in a 12-storey structure, once it is completed and we have high winds, depending on how or what exposures are open, we could have definite wind-driven fires through these tall buildings and spreading very rapidly from floor to floor.”
City of Lethbridge chief fire marshal Heath Wright agrees the greatest fire risk and vulnerability in erecting tall, wooden structures occurs in the construction phase.
“Our largest concerns with (large wood-frame) buildings would be the amount of fuel load during construction,” he confirms. “It is not so much after the building is completed, it is during the construction stage and how the builders are going to assure us that these combustible buildings are not either intentionally or unintentionally ignited. And if they do get ignited, how are we going to lessen that risk to the public as well as our firefighters, as well as the existing infrastructure around it due to the radiant heat? We also get concerned about the embers that come off a higher structure. It’s a lot like a wildland fire; the embers that come off of those trees in wildland is very similar to what high building combustibles would be like, too. Any type of flying embers that would ignite other infrastructure around would be a very big consideration.”
On the other hand, any wood-frame construction over four storeys in Lethbridge already requires the contractor submit and follow a safety plan in close consultation with the fire marshal’s office, says Wright. This includes maintaining adequate security at the site at all times, filing a plan which lessens the risk to adjacent property owners should a fire break out, and a staged construction where standpipes are utilized at each level to provide an unlimited water source for firefighters who arrive on scene.
Wright admits these requirements do not address all the concerns present during the construction phase of taller, wood-frame structures; particularly with the potential for falling embers from that height to ignite other structures below and Lethbridge’s grassland areas.
“Any time you are adding fuel load to a structure, especially one under construction, we can try to put safety systems in place as much as possible, but if it does ignite, now we are dealing with higher amounts of fuel load and higher amounts of radiant heat,” he says. “And when we deal with grasslands, all it takes is one ember to get grasslands going.”
Wright stresses that tall, wood-frame structures, once constructed, have the same level of risk associated with them as steel and concrete structures of the same height as long as all the required fire safety systems in place within the building are functioning properly.
“I think the strongest message I can say is these buildings are just as safe as other large-scale buildings,” he states, “but the largest concern we have is during construction.”
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