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Fire Chief Offers Perspective on Wood Framed Mid-Rise Buildings

Steve Lohr, Chief of the Hagerstown-MD Fire Department, provides information on the risk of fires in wood framed buildings.

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In a recent Steel Framing Industry Association (SFIA) webinar, Fire Chief Steve Lohr warns that changes in the building codes that have permitted the use of combustible framing in mid-rise buildings have created a perfect storm for fire fighters who increasingly are having to deal with fires that burn hotter, spread faster, are harder for fire crews to access, pose greater risk to surrounding buildings, and which can quickly overcome the available municipal water supplies needed to suppress the blaze.

A video of the program, called “Type V Construction Changes: The perfect storm” is available for viewing on the SFIA website.

Chief Lohr, who has more than 45 years of continuous firefighting experience, currently serving as Chief of the Hagerstown, MD Fire Department, following 30 years in Montgomery County, MD, where he retired as Chief of the Montgomery Fire and Rescue Service.

In his presentation, Lohr noted that the public assumes that the codes are adequate, but that the record of large loss fires and buildings under construction tells a different story and that when these major fire events occur that code enforcement compliance ends up in the lap of the fire department.  Unfortunately, fire services across the country were decimated by the loss of 70,000 jobs during the Great Recession, leaving many municipalities at risk, but especially those where Fire Department Prevention Bureaus Don’t Exist.

Among the recommendations made by Chief Lohr during the presentation are:

  • The elimination of pedestal and the loft or mezzanine as not counting in determination of number of floors
  • A roll back of height and area limits (65 ft.)
  • NFPA 13 sprinkler requirements (increased water flow) everywhere in multifamily and commercial, to include interstitial spaces and unprotected attic spaces
  • Provide realistic fire department access during all phases of construction
  • Structurally independent stairwells
  • Limiting the use of combustible exterior wall coverings.

He adds that the risk of fires in these large, wood framed buildings is not just a problem during construction but exist for as long as the building stands.

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