HOULTON, Maine — New homes are putting the lives of firefighters at greater risk due to changes in construction materials, said Joseph Thomas, Maine state fire marshal, on Saturday evening at the Houlton Fire Department’s annual awards ceremony and dinner. Thomas was the guest speaker for the event, which also recognizes members of the department for their years of service.
The Maine state fire marshal’s office investigated 677 fires in 2013, representing $243 million in property loss.
Thomas retired from the Portland Fire Department after 28 years of service. He joined the state fire marshal’s office shortly afterward, working in the planning division. He then moved up to the position of assistant fire marshal before becoming the head fire marshal three years ago. He has more than 40 years of firefighting experience.
“One of the things that bothers me the most, and we are going to start actively working on it this year, is new building construction,” Thomas said. “ Lightweight construction is really starting to show up in the building industry. Engineered lumber and some of the products they are doing, they can make a significant size I-beam in a much smaller dimension than traditional lumber.”
Because of this change in construction habits, the impact on firefighters is immense.
“We used to have a 20-minute rule,” Thomas said. “If you got to a scene of an incident, where there was a good working fire, and you put people in that building, if you didn’t start getting white smoke in 20 minutes, we started backing people out.”
In that span of time, a fire can quadruple in size and intensity, making the building unsafe for firefighters.
“Lightweight construction, under test results at the National Institute for [Standards] and Technology, failed completely in eight minutes,” Thomas said. “Where are you in eight minutes from the time the alarm comes in? You respond, and you go through that front door, where are you going to be? You’re going to be in the basement.”
Thomas added that in some places, lightweight construction was being used for buildings as tall as 10 stories.
“This is very concerning to me,” he said. “I think it is time we as a fire service stand up and say, ‘We’ll die to save lives, but I’ll be damned if I am going to die to save a building.’”
Thomas added he was impressed with the Houlton Fire Department for having a strong mixture of veterans and younger members.
“I am very impressed with the department you have here,” Thomas said. “You have young people sitting here in this room and that is unbelievable nowadays in the fire service. For those of us that have been around, we’ve been praying for younger people to step in around the state. I compliment your department for bringing that next generation forward.”