AWC Stands Firm on Legacy Floor; UL Suggests this Isn't Wise. Do More Firefighters Have to Die?

Editor's Note: SBCA continues to believe that all floor systems should be protected with ½” gypsum wallboard membrane. SBCA has proposed an IRC code change proposal, RB69-16, that will be heard at the upcoming October code development hearing in Kansas City, Missouri. The videos included in this article are part of the public record. They are taken from public testimony at the April 2016 ICC Committee Action Hearings in Louisville, Kentucky.

The American Wood Council (AWC) has published the following statement with regard to the R302.13 code change authored by the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) and AWC, which requires everything other than conventionally-framed floors to be protected with a layer of ½” of gypsum wallboard (emphasis added):

Chapter 3 of the International Residential Code (IRC) sets forth minimum requirements for the health, safety, and welfare of occupants in one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses. Section R302.13 provides for the minimum fire protection of floors that do not require a fire resistance rating. During the development of these provisions in the 2012 model code, historical precedent and the familiarity of the fire service with the attributes of solid sawn framing lumber led to choosing solid sawn lumber joists not less in size than 2"x10" as the benchmark for fire performance of wood floor assemblies [...]. The code requires other floor systems to be protected by a minimum of one-half inch (1/2") layer of gypsum wallboard, five-eighths inch (5/8") wood structural panels, or equivalent [...]. For more information, see the FAQ and white paper available here.

At the April 2016 ICC Committee Action Hearings, Sam Francis of the AWC testified he was involved in crafting the original IRC R501.3 code language. In the video below, Mr. Francis outlines the coalition of interest groups led by AWC and NAHB who participated in drafting the code provision. AWC’s main argument for the code provision as it was written was that the exception for 2x10s was based on the familiarity of the fire service with the attributes of solid sawn framing lumber and historical precedent with regard to performance. Presumably, this includes the Wilmington, Deleware, fire in a townhouse constucted in 1944.



BillyG, author of's "Secret List," is known for providing in-depth updates on notable firefighter events. He recently reported on the fire in Wilmington, Delaware, where two firefighters were killed. Here are key concepts he reported with respect to this tragedy:

Firefighters died in a floor collapse at row house (i.e. townhouse) fire that was built in 1944. The fire was reported 2:54 a.m. … Fire Department Battalion Chief James Jobes said firefighters were working on the first floor when it collapsed, trapping them in the basement. According to the Fire Department, one or more firefighters became trapped at 3:14 a.m. and radioed for help. When the floor caved, veteran firefighters Christopher Leach and Jerry Fickes were among the "four or five" firefighters who fell into the basement and became trapped.

SBCA urges building officials to overturn the IRC committee and vote in favor
of SBCA’s RB69 proposal to improve firefighter safety, and life safety overall.

The sponsor of the original code change, Sean DeCrane of the Cleveland Fire Department and International Association of Fire Fighters, spoke in support of SBCA’s RB69 proposal by stating succinctly in the video below that, “[…] we would love to protect every single floor because the research at UL is showing us the poor performance. As Sam [Francis of AWC] pointed out, we had an expectation of performance of older wood […] this new age wood is just not performing as well as it did historically,” and, “as to the 100% design load that is what ASTM E119 requires.”

UL tested legacy 2x8 dimension lumber at 100% design load and found the time to failure to be 14 minutes 20 seconds. It is important to note that UL followed the complete ASTM standard testing protocol. Page 24 of the UL Report provides details of the benchmark testing and comparisons. This is what AWC is referring to above as historical precedent, but recent testing and real-world experiences suggest basing decisions on historical precedent and legacy information may be placing firefighters at serious risk.

A failure to eliminate Exception 4 from IRC-12 R501.3 and IRC-15 R302.13 could lead to a firefighter falling through an unprotected 2x10 or Flak Jacket® coated I-joist floor and being maimed or killed due to an erroneous assumption the system adheres to the traditional “20-minute rule.” In contrast, by providing a ½” gypsum wallboard membrane ceiling to all floor systems, 20 minutes of actual performance time is likely to be present.

SBCA hopes the tragic fire in Wilmington, Delaware is a wakeup call for all in attendance at the ICC code hearings in Kansas City, Missouri later this month. The loss of life underscores the serious nature of this issue! Please OVERTURN THE IRC COMMITTEE and vote in favor of SBCA’s RB69 proposal to improve firefighter safety, and life safety overall.

For more information on the fire performance of floor systems, click here. SBCA continues to believe that all floor systems should be protected with ½” gypsum wallboard membrane. If no protection is required for a particular floor system by the code, that floor system should be tested to ensure it is in accordance with ASTM E119 at 100% design load to generate a 26-minute performance as defined in UL’s report. Beyond this approach, to achieve greater fire safety in single-family homes, SBCA advocates for the use of sprinkler systems that are becoming increasingly more affordable.

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