LOST IN THE SHUFFLE

LOST IN THE SHUFFLE

EDITOR’S OPINION

We’ve seen the end of the so-called Cold War.

The smashing of walls in Europe. A United Nations that could stand together. And an unprecedented summit between the fire service and the wood products industry—almost. Unfortunately, a golden opportunity vanished quicker than you can say “lightweight wood truss assembly.”

As early as March, 1990, the wood products industry approached six fire service leaders to participate in talks on the fire performance of engineered lightweight wood construction products. These fire service people had been exceptionally prominent in publicizing the dangers of metal plate-connected lightweight wood truss assemblies under fire conditions. Certainly, the creation of an ad hoc committee was in the spirit of cooperation and good faith.

Initial correspondence included written responses to a questionnaire that sought to define the concerns of individuals on both sides. Not surprisingly, lightweight wood truss construction was the predominant concern. The need for education, information, and interaction was evident; the problem then was to get everybody in the same place at the same time.

That meeting never took place. Soon after the initial groundwork was laid, the wood products industry enlisted the involvement of the National Fire Protection Association. Less than a month later, six members of the wood products industry and one member of the National Fire Protection Research Foundation (an arm of the NFPA) held an impromptu ad hoc committee meeting at the Forest Products Research Society conference in Salt Lake City to establish policy and agenda. The original fire service committee members were not represented.

The Salt Lake City meeting determined that the NFPA would play a major role in the project and represent and coordinate the fire service side of the issue. The NFPA expanded the list of fire service participants. From this new list—containing some inexplicable choices, not the least of which were two United States congressmen—four “fire service” individuals were to be elected to a w orking group—the players—of the ad hoc committee.

Then there was silence. From that June, 1990 meeting in Utah until the time of this writing, the NFPA has neither contacted nor informed the original fire service ad hoc committee members it supposedly represents. It has, with the w(x>d industry’s blessing, conducted research on engineered lightweight construction. No one can or should begrudge the NFPA the right to conduct research and generate reports. But the silence is disturbing. It seems they took the handoff and ran clear out of the stadium.

The NFPA is attempting to amass all the published and unpublished literature and scientific data on all engineered lightweight construction elements/assemblies, including steel and light-gauge metal. While this widened focus makes for a more comprehensive report and might even set the stage for comparison testing somewhere down the line, it dilutes the original intent of the ad hoc committee: wood construction, and wood truss construction especially.

The NFPA intends to study the information to determine if there are gaps that call for testing. I can name that tune in three notes: not enough information. The reason the fire service and the wood industry needed to get together in the first place is because there is no scientific data available that accurately describes the fire behavior of lightweight wood truss construction. We need unbiased, realistic tests that simulate the fire conditions and the fire loads—and the moving firefighter loads—of today, and as soon as possible. Historical research is prolonging the obvious. While I write, firefighters on and under lightweight wood trusses are risking their lives.

The NFPA study will make for an interesting compendium. Whether all of it is published is anybody’s guess; whoever’s funding the project has a say in what gets printed and distributed. Perhaps the NFPA will uncover some proprietary industry information that’s been held back all these years. (Wouldn’t that be interesting.) But for sure, the NFPA will discuss its research findings, then the wood products industry will discuss it, and then they’ll discuss it together. Very little of what has transpired to this point leads me to believe that they w ill feel compelled to consult the original fire service ad hoc committee members about how they should conduct the tests.

I hope my speculations will be proven way off base. Kirk Grundahl, professional engineer, wood products industry consultant, and ad hoc committee coordinator, has assured me of his desire to help create a productive and meaningful project, and I believe him. It’s about time that the fire service and the wood industry approach the problems at hand through positive action. There’s too much at stake not to.

One more thought. This whole situation reinforces a very important point: It is not enough for the fire service to be “the good guys.” It is not enough for you to express your concerns in fire service journals and leave it there. The world is not going to change its ways when firefighters die—unless you make it so. Seek out the individuals and groups who are dealing the cards. Make certain that the fire service is not lost in the shuffle.

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