Toothpick Construction: Enough is Enough, Part 2

For Part 1 of this article, click HERE.

By Jack J. Murphy

We are midway through 2017, and 10 massive lightweight wood “toothpick construction” (LLW/TPC) that were in various stages of construction burned—many of them to the ground—causing numerous existing building exposure fires that displaced many families.

Although the code development cycle is currently reviewing Chapter 33—Fire Safety Under Construction and Demolition proposals for the 2021 edition to address LLW/TPS under-construction concerns, there is still a need to address code sections for the ineffective National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)-13R (roulette) sprinkler system and amend it with a full NFPA-13 building sprinkler system as well as seek smaller footprints and height limitations with masonry walls from the foundation through the roof. In the existing building code, the LLW/TPS buildings seek a retrofit proposal to enhance current code sections on fire protection and life safety measures.

After the Boston 6th-alarm building under construction fire, “The city commissioner blasted construction workers for taking 90 minutes to report a fire that destroyed a six-story building in Dorchester last month and said city officials are working on new safety standards for buildings under construction, particularly those with highly flammable wood frames.”1

Table 1. Fires in Buildings Under Construction

In today’s LLW/TPC construction fires (under construction and existing structures) the only surviving building components are the parking garage area, elevator hoistways, and stairwell enclosures.


(1) The Waltham (MA) 10th alarm fire. Vertical masonry building components survive again.2


Proactive Fire Safety Measures

Some proactive actions a local fire department should advocate to its community for LLW/TPC buildings under construction include the following:

o  To the owner:

Submit a site safety plan (to be approved by authority having jurisdiction).

>  No smoking or cooking on the premises.

>  Have a hot work policy in place and fire guard for cutting welding, grinding operations, and so on.

>  Appoint a certified site safety manager (SSM) during working hours.

Submit the SSM’s qualifications to fire code official for approval. If there’s no local program, refer to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 10-hour training program that includes exit routes, emergency action plans, fire prevention plans, fire protection, and prevention.

  • Hot work operations. SSM supervises and issues hot work permits.
  • Maintain records of training

o   Site safety training.

– Maintain records of weekly training sessions on:

> Use of a fire extinguisher.

> No smoking or cooking policies.

How to report a smell of smoke or a fire.

> Hot work procedures, and so on.

o   Post a patrolled 24-hour fire watch with the means to report a fire incident.

o   Provide and maintain clear access routes for fire apparatus.

o   Unannounced fire department onsite inspections or considerations for placing an engine company on site.

o   Routine fire company preincident survey.

o   Municipality to consider having the owner float a “conflagration fire bond” to cover the cost of all fire suppression and law       enforcement operations.

Legislation prompted by the January 15, 2015, Edgewater, New Jersey, fire was stalled by trade group lobbying.3 With all of these LLW/TPC fires continually burning while under construction and occupied, trade groups are still lobbying at the state level and stalling legislation to go forward to enhance fire protection and life safety measures. (see

State and local fire organizations should challenge these trade groups and building owners with the videos of all these fires and refer to the 1995 Chesterfield, Virginia, fire. The United States Fire Association’s Technical Report Series on the Old Buckingham Station4 incident found key issues with the following:  

  • Large unsprinklered combustible spaces.
  • Inappropriate sprinkler standard (NFPA-13D) was not intended for large structures.
  • Draft stopping and tenant fire separations did not substantially protect combustible space whose ventilation openings into attic space at the building eaves and fire spread.
  • Open combustible corridors and balconies and lightweight exterior wall finish supported rapid vertical and horizontal fire spread [refer to Occupied Fires/No.40 Chesterfield (VA) fire report (1995)].

Do we really need to wait for the next code cycle edition in 2021? The time is NOW for the trade industry to step up and take action to reduce fires at buildings under construction and enhance life safety measures by promoting an NFPA-13 full-building sprinkler system, smaller building footprints, height limitations, and masonry walls from the foundation to the roof for future occupants.


List of LLW/TPC Massive and Conflagration Fires for Buildings (Updated 08/13/2017)


  1. Waltham (MA) – 7/22/2017 10th alarm Arson fire 100 million in damage.;
  2. Oakland (CA) – 7/07/2017.—-watch-live/2191992.
  3. Oakland-Emeryville (CA) – 5/13/2017. Second massive fire within a year that has engulfed this complex.
  4. Boston (MA) – 6/28/2017.
  5. College Park (MD) – 5/24/2017.
  6. Pomona (CA) – 5/10/2017.
  7. Overland Park (KS) – 3/21/2017. Plus exposure fires to 20 single-family homes.
  8. Raleigh (NC) – 3/17/2017. Plus exposure fires to 10 buildings.
  9. Maplewood (NJ) – 2/4/2017. Sixth alarm at this fire several task force response teams saved a second similar building near completion on site that had a full NPFA-13 sprinkler system throughout and passive fire masonry protection walls.
  10. Lynnwood (WA) – 1/26/2017.
  11. Oakland-Emeryville (CA) – 7/06/2016.
  12. Gilbert (AZ) – 4/26/2016.
  13. Baltimore (MD) – 4/27/2015. Possible arson ATF investigation.
  14. San Francisco (CA) – 12/08/2014.
  15. Los Angeles (CA) – 12/08/2014 Plus exposure fires two adjacent buildings including a 16-story to high-rise.
  16. Cliffside Park (NJ) – 11/18/2014. A plus fire fueled a second three-alarm alarm exposure fire from hot embers.
  17. Madison (WI) – 8/09/2014.
  18. Rockville (MD) – 4/01/2014. Fire apparatus access issues.
  19. Houston (TX) – 3/24/2014.
  20. Glendale (CO) – 12/14/2013.
  21. Portland (OR) – 8/08/2013.
  22. Uniondale (NY) – 4/11/2012.
  23. Rahway (NJ) – 1/4/2011.
  24. Renton (WA) – 6/20/2009.
  25. Indianapolis (IN) 3/12/2009.
  26. Conshohocken (PA) – 8/13/2008. Eighty fire deptartments respond.
  27. Danvers (MA) – 2007. First fire, $1 million in damages (refer to No. 36/2nd fire in this complex).
  28. Ybor City (FLA) – 5/19/2000.
  29. Edgewater (NJ) 8/21/2000.



  1. Charlotte (NC) – 7/17/2017. 139 people displaced; arson fire.
  3. Edgewater (NJ) – 1/23/2015. Second fire at this complex; 1,000 people displaced; 50 fire departments responded. Record (2016) Edgewater Fire Safety Upgrade Proposals:
  4. Dallas (TX) – 3/14/2014. Eighty people displaced; 42 apartments destroyed.
  5. Quincy (MA) – 7/10/2011. 24 apartment units destroyed.
  6. Danvers (MA) – 5/28/2008.*
  7. Gloucester (MA) – 2/16/2007.*
  8. Georgetown (MA) – 1/2/2007.*
  9. Conshohocken (PA) -2008. This was an exposure fire (refer to #27).
  10. Chesterfield (VA) – 5/19/1995. USFA Technical Report Series, Old Buckingham Station, Chesterfield (VA).
  11. And counting???

[*Large Loss Fires State of MA (2009) PowerPoint of various large lightweight occupied residential construction fires have occurred.]


Key Issues & Comments

  • Large Unsprinklered combustible spacesThe lack of automatic sprinklers in substantial combustible spaces allowed a large fire to develop.
  • Inappropriate sprinkler standard NFPA 13D is not intended for large structuresor for other than use in one- and two-family dwellings and mobile homes.
  • Draft stopping and tenant fire separationsThe attic represented a substantial unprotected combustible space whose primary fire defense is the building code required draft stopping at tenant separation walls. Between effective draft stops, unimpeded fire growth can be expected and, with typical attic ventilation, plenty of air will be available for this growth. Stopping the fire’s spread at this point will depend on the integrity of the draft stops, fire department intervention, and the failure time of the construction. In this structure, the location of draft stops may not have coincided with tenant separation walls in all locations. The fire may have traveled thru the apartments under the draft-stopping.
  • Ventilation openings into attic air vent openings at the building eaves permitted the fire to easily access the unprotected combustible attic space.
  • Fire spread. The open combustible corridors and balconies and lightweight exterior wall finish supported rapid vertical and horizontal fire spread.



  1. “Boston Fire Commish Critical of Workers During Massive Apartment Building Fire.”
  3. “Legislation prompted by Edgewater fire stalls as Prieto meets with lobbyists “


JACK J. MURPHY, MA, is a fire marshal (ret.) and a former deputy chief. He is the chairman of the New York City High-Rise Fire Safety Directors Association and a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) High-Rise Building Safety Advisory and the NFPA 1620, Pre-Incident Planning, committees. He has published articles and authored RICS: Rapid Incident Command System Field Handbook and the Preincident Planning chapter of Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and coauthored Bridging the Gap: Fire Safety and Green Buildings. He contributes articles to Fire Engineering and is a member of the Pennwell Fire Group executive advisory board. He was the recipient of the 2012 Fire Engineering Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award.

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