A common building material found in homes all over Central Indiana may present a potential danger if it catches fire. The material is an engineered wood I-joist. National researchers have linked the joists to the deaths of three firefighters, including one Hoosier.
Deputy Chief Steve Smith of Tippecanoe County died after the floor beneath him collapsed in a burning home. His partner that day, Bryce Baskett, said the floor was very hot and they knew it was losing strength very fast. The Wea Township Fire Department had never lost anyone before that day in June of 2006.
Firefighters are taught that — to survive — they must "know the enemy." Attorney Cy Gerde calls the engineered wood “the enemy.” He studied the Smith case as the lawyer for the Tippecanoe County town of Shadeland. The town passed an ordinance regulating the use of the material because its firefighters, near Wea Township, had personal concerns about Smith’s death.
Gerde said engineered wood is a great material, as long as it’s not burning.
But, he said, “At 572 degrees for 10 minutes or less, it just becomes sawdust.”
That’s why the Fishers Fire Department agreed to run a test. It placed a piece of traditional 2×12 lumber next to a comparably-sized I-joist. Next, firefighters put plywood on top of both — to represent a floor — and concrete blocks atop the plywood to simulate furniture. The firefighters knew what to expect when they ignited the contraption.
Public Information Officer Ron Lipps, referring to the thinner I-joist, said, “It’s going to burn faster and easier than that big piece of wood.”
Lipps’ prediction came true faster than expected. The I-joist in the test curled and collapsed in just three minutes and 29 seconds. While the standard lumber was still solid wood, there was little left of the man-made material.
In a real house fire, the danger comes as flames spread from one joist to another.
Fishers Division Chief Chad Abel said, “Even the ones that aren’t burned through – but are affected by the fire – are now going to collapse. Because when that drops, and the ones in between drop, then those can’t hold the same weight that they once did.”
That’s the tragedy of the Smith family in Wea Township, and of a firefighter’s family in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and of a firefighter’s family in Tennessee.
Cy Gerde said it’s not just a firefighter safety issue. He said homeowners also need to be aware of the potential hazard.
"It’s a very real risk to anybody who doesn’t know what’s in that house. They could die," Gerde says.
Builders have been installing the beams for some 25 years. 24-Hour News 8 contacted 11 builders in Central Indiana, six responded. All six said they use them.
Alan Goldsticker, the president of Ryland Homes’ Indianapolis Division said the I-joists are a “great product.” He said the beams allow builders to create the wide expanses that are so popular in modern homes. Goldsticker said his company — and his customers — appreciate the strength of the joists.
"You know when you walk in a house and the floor feels solid? That’s in big part because of these I-joists," Goldsticker said.
Goldsticker and some of the other builders 24-Hour News 8 contacted said they were not aware of the fire issue. But he and the industry insist the joists meet all Indiana and other building codes.
“Everything evolves,” Goldsticker said. “So, with any product we’ve used over the years, if you’ve been in the business for a long time, products change based on how ‘green’ it is, how safe it is, you know, what the value is and what the demand is."
The Smith family is hoping for an evolution in building codes, such as the ordinance in Shadeland. The law said the joists could not be used without a fire retardant, such as a sprinkler system. But the town is not enforcing the ordinance — deferring to the state to take action, which it hasn’t.
Robert Smith, Steve’s brother, said he doesn’t blame anyone for the lack of enforcement. He knows it is a tough time to ask for changes that add to a home’s expense.
But, he said, “Knowing now that you could put a price on safety — that makes me question it."
24-Hour News 8 wanted to ask the Indiana State Fire Marshal about the fire safety issue. His office refused repeated requests for an interview. Instead, the office released a statement saying, among other things, don’t go back into a burning home (read the entire statement below).
Beyond that, home sprinkler systems would be an important addition to enhance safety. But, that’s easiest for new construction.
Firefighters and the I-joist industry said homeowners can add gypsum board or drywall over joists.
The industry said the additions will, "dramatically improve residential fire safety."
Also, firefighters say a fire escape ladder is a good idea for each upstairs bedroom — no matter what’s holding up your floor.
Statement from the Indiana State Fire Marshal:
The Indiana State Fire Marshal’s office, part of the Indiana Department
of Homeland Security (IDHS), fully supports the important work of Indiana’s heroic firefighters. They risk their lives every day for public safety.
Firefighters are integrating new information into fire fighting strategies continually. They need to constantly be aware of changing circumstances in building materials, assess any fire and structure on a case by case basis and respond accordingly.
Any member of the general public is advised to exit a burning structure immediately. Don’t return.
Anyone wishing to propose changes to the Indiana Residential code should send a code change proposal to the Indiana Fire Prevention & Building Safety Commission/Code Services, Attn: Chairman, 302 W. Washington Street Room W246, Indianapolis, IN 46204.
– James Greeson, Indiana State Fire Marshal