Lessons not learned
Massachusetts belatedly confronts construction fire dangers
The night sky glowed in East Longmeadow as firefighters raced toward a sprawling retirement complex being built on acres of farmland. They arrived minutes after the first call to find a raging inferno like nothing they had ever encountered.
Manufactured composite wood used in the construction of the unoccupied, 130-unit Bluebird Estates burned like kindling. Wind carried embers a half-mile away, forcing the evacuation of a hundred nearby homes.
“It was just a wall of fire,” recounted Paul Morrissette, now the town’s fire chief, who was a captain on the first truck to arrive at the scene in 2007.
The massive blaze was a wake-up call for fire departments and state officials to the serious potential hazards of these increasingly common engineered wood products, especially during construction, before sheetrock, sprinklers, and fire alarms are installed and operating. East Longmeadow immediately stepped up efforts to reduce the risk of fires at all construction sites, Morrissette said.
Now, 10 years later, it’s clear that much of Massachusetts didn’t get the message.
Recent spectacular fires at wood-framed apartment complexes under construction in Waltham and Dorchester have revealed big gaps in the state’s approach to fire prevention at these kinds of projects, especially at a time when local building and fire inspectors say they feel overwhelmed just keeping up with the pace of development in this boom economy.
A Globe review of construction site safety enforcement in 12 Greater Boston communities found that only three require developers to submit written fire prevention plans — the gold standard, according to experts — addressing in detail potential risks and proposed safeguards. And it’s unclear if any have pushed to implement potentially costly recommendations in the state fire code such as requiring round-the-clock security, which might have prevented or at least mitigated the nighttime conflagration that consumed the Waltham project last month.
Construction workers, too, may need added training in the risks that engineered wood can pose. Workers at the Treadmark construction project in Dorchester smelled smoke, but didn’t call 911 for 90 minutes. The nearly completed apartment complex was destroyed.
Adding to the confusion, the state building and fire codes invite widely different interpretations about what developers must do to prevent construction sites from going up in flames. Last week, after weeks of questions from the Globe, top building and fire safety officials announced they would form a working group to clarify basic issues surrounding interpretation and enforcement of the codes.
Unfortunately, fire officials say the fire risk has only grown as the state now allows contractors to use wood-frame construction in buildings up to six stories tall. Such taller wood-framed buildings are often shoehorned into densely populated areas, putting entire neighborhoods at risk during construction fires. The Waltham and Dorchester fires forced evacuations and road closings that went on for days.
Many on the front lines battling these blazes have been sounding an alarm about lightweight wood-frame buildings at least since 2010 when the state building code was amended to raise the height limit from five to six stories. The following year, firefighters began urging Massachusetts lawmakers to create a commission to investigate the impact of the possible role of manufactured wood construction in firefighter deaths and injuries.
At least three US firefighters were killed fighting construction fires in wood-framed buildings in the mid-2000s, including a Wisconsin firefighter who fell through a floor being supported by joists made with composite wood. Firefighters say these tragedies have changed the way they fight fires in modern wood-frame buildings, reducing the amount of time they can fight the blaze from inside the structure before it collapses.
But proposals to create a commission to study the issue have languished for years in the Massachusetts Legislature, in part because the lead sponsor, Senator Thomas P. Kennedy of Brockton, died in 2015.
“It seems to me there’s been a rush to get these innovative building techniques on the market,” said Acushnet Fire Chief Kevin A. Gallagher, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards, which establishes building codes. “It may be time for a timeout to make sure we are not going down a road that will come back and bite us later.”
Engineered wood products have revolutionized construction since the first I-joists — strong but lightweight building supports — were crafted in 1969, giving builders a less expensive and more flexible alternative to traditional lumber. The new wood, also known as composite wood, is manufactured by binding fibers, particles, and other materials into joists or beams that are durable enough to support floors and roofs. The products have helped make possible the larger, more open rooms that gained popularity on the West Coast in the mid-1980s and are now common in modern construction all over.
Today, thousands of units using engineered wood framing are going up all over Greater Boston. Many of them might not be built at all if not for composite wood framing, which typically costs 15 to 25 percent less than other construction types, according to Frederick Kramer, a regional vice president at Stantec, a Canadian architectural and engineering design firm that designs projects in the United States. He said demand for affordable and luxury apartment complexes is so intense, and building costs so steep, that wood-framed projects have become the only viable option.
“Those projects don’t work in anything other than wood construction,” Kramer said. “They don’t work in steel, or steel and concrete. Wood is the only answer, or the project does not get built.”
The downside of engineered wood, according to fire safety experts, is that it burns faster than traditional wood, and once those lightweight supporting materials fail, roofs and floors collapse quickly.
“Ninety percent of these buildings go up every day and nothing happens,”said Easthampton Fire Chief David Mottor, president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts. Mottor said that engineered wood is “relatively safe” once a building is occupied.
“It’s during construction, before the sprinkler system is activated, when they are most dangerous,” said Mottor, calling the recent Massachusetts fires “an eye opener,” demonstrating their potential risk to firefighters and neighboring residents.
Massachusetts regulators recognized both the promise and the peril of engineered wood in 2010 when they updated the state building code to match international regulations that allow taller lightweight wood-framed buildings, but also for the first time called for specific fire safety rules for construction sites.
The standards, originally developed by the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association, require building owners to put one person in charge of fire prevention at a construction site. The standards also require owners to address key safety measures, such as how workers will be trained in fire prevention, how debris and combustible materials will be stored and removed, how the site will be secured, and what type of system will be used for rapid communication if there is a fire.
But, while developers quickly took advantage of the more permissive height limit on wood construction, the state did little to promote construction site fire safety until January 2015, according to the Globe’s review. That’s when Massachusetts for the first time added a chapter in the state fire code that specifically required a fire prevention plan at all construction sites — giving fire departments, in addition to building inspectors, the authority to enforce the rules.
However, language in the 2015 addition left unclear how extensive safety planning needs to be. The chapter calls for plans to be “submitted,” but doesn’t explicitly say they need to be in writing, and, currently, only three out of a dozen Greater Boston communities — Boston, Cambridge, and Revere — require builders to submit a written fire safety plan.
A written plan “forces [builders] to look at their site from a fire prevention standpoint and commits them to these things in writing,” said Revere Fire Department Deputy Chief Paul Cheever, an engineer by training, who was promoted to lead the department’s fire prevention bureau last year. One of Cheever’s first acts was to require written fire prevention plans.
“So now,” Cheever said, “if they don’t comply with an agreed upon plan, it gives me the option to go in and force compliance.”
Allan Fraser, a senior building code specialist with the National Fire Protection Association, said the standards his group developed — the model for Massachusetts’ rules — expected fire prevention plans to be in writing.
“It would be a worthless requirement if it was not,” he said.
However, several state officials said that it was up to cities and towns to decide if they want a written plan.
And Peter Harrod, a fire protection consultant with Code Red Consultants in Southborough, said his company has found that different municipalities have varying expectations.
“Some want a comprehensive written plan and identification of a fire protection program manager as a condition of a building permit, while others appear to not have formalized requirements,” Harrod said.
Some fire officials admit they are just getting started with the fire prevention standards. Malden Fire Lieutenant Kevin Halpin said his team has long stressed construction site fire safety, but after the Dorchester fire in June, they realized the city needs to formalize the process, requiring written plans with contact information for site managers in the event of an emergency.
“My office should step up in the wake of all the problems and tighten our belts for buildings under construction,” Halpin said.
Leaders in seven other communities said they also do not require a written plan but instead rely on a meeting with builders before construction starts to review fire safety measures each project must follow. An eighth community, Weymouth, only requires a written plan for larger projects.
Local regulators said they try to pop in on construction sites to make sure workers are adhering to their promises. But they said they often lack the resources to keep a close eye.
“You are constantly talking to these people for the trash they have around. They try to get away with something, or they should know better,” said Captain Kevin Nelligan of the Braintree Fire Department.
In Waltham, where the 10-alarm July blaze caused $110 million in damage, the city has not required developers to submit a written fire prevention plan, according to William Forte, Waltham’s superintendent of public buildings.
On Thursday, fire officials said arson was to blame for the Waltham inferno. They have not said whether the city will now tighten oversight of construction projects and require written fire prevention plans or more security.
The general contractor of the project, Bridgewater-based Callahan Construction, said the company follows a fire prevention plan that “mirrors safety protocols” outlined in the state fire code. The company noted in a statement that the Waltham site passed an inspection by city officials just before the fire.
But the company declined to release a copy of its fire prevention plans. Company spokeswoman Lisa Nickerson said fencing surrounded the project and there was a surveillance camera, but the site did not have a night security guard, something the state fire code recommends.
“Site security is a key priority for Callahan,” Nickerson said. “Though we consistently review our policies to ensure they meet and exceed industry standards, in light of recent events, we are currently examining where even greater measures can be taken moving forward.”
Nickerson said the company has beefed up security at many of its other sites since the fire, with roving security details, additional video monitoring systems, and increased police and fire presence to supplement safeguards already in place.
Boston’s insistence on written fire prevention plans was born from tragedy.
Two firefighters died in March 2014 fighting a wind-whipped blaze linked to unpermitted and improperly performed welding at a building in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood. That led to new training requirements for anyone doing “hot” work at construction sites as well as a tough, new construction site fire prevention program, according to William Christopher, commissioner of the Inspectional Services Department.
Yet even when there is a plan, it doesn’t ensure that workers will follow basic safety precautions.
Workers improperly installed an exhaust pipe too close to surrounding wood, igniting a fire in June that destroyed the Treadmark in Dorchester just as construction of the six-story, 83-unit apartment complex was nearing completion, officials ruled last month. That error was compounded when workers testing a generator connected to that exhaust pipe waited about 90 minutes to call 911 after they first smelled smoke and saw haze inside building, officials said.
A spokesman for Cranshaw Construction, which built the Dorchester complex, said the company wouldn’t comment because the matter is still under investigation, except to say that safety remains the company’s top priority.
On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards, which establishes the state code, concluded that more needs to be done to educate cities and towns about their obligation to enforce state regulations.
The board will send a memo to cities and towns, reminding them of their responsibility to enforce the fire safety program at every construction site, according to Richard P. Crowley, a longtime builder and chairman of the building regulations and standards board.
Regulators also plan to study the causes of fires nationwide at wood-frame construction sites for lessons. This year alone, there were at least nine massive fires at sprawling, wood-frame apartment complexes under construction from California to Boston, wreaking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, forcing scores of nearby residents to be evacuated, and, in some cases, causing injuries to firefighters.
Crowley, who stressed that he was speaking for himself and not the board, said that if the regulators’ review finds that the string of nationwide fires is caused by “a mixture of arson and stupidity, then we might find it’s not a problem with the building code, it’s a problem with managing those particular projects.”
While it’s nearly impossible to stop someone who is intent on setting a fire, Crowley said, the best deterrent is surveillance cameras and round-the-clock security, which is a nominal investment on a multimillion dollar project.
Arson and heating equipment too close to flammable materials are tied for the second most common cause of fires at construction sites nationwide, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The top offender is cooking equipment, such as workers’ hot plates, accounting for 27 percent of the fires annually between 2010 and 2014.
At the time of the 2007 fire in East Longmedow, a project manager was living in a trailer on the property but didn’t hear or see anything suspicious before the complex erupted in flames. Melted gasoline cans indicated it was arson, but nobody was ever charged.
Eric Mulligan, president of Oregon-based Colson & Colson, which developed the East Longmeadow project and rebuilt it after the fire, said the company “ramped up security” on all of its projects, including night watchmen and video security, after the 2007 blaze.
Most local officials are focusing on the safety of the building for residents rather than while it’s under construction, said Mulligan, so it falls to the builder and contractor to prevent fires while it’s being built. Mulligan said he’s never been required to submit a written fire prevention plan, even though he has developed 300 independent and retirement living complexes nationwide.
“Protecting life is a lot more important than protecting somebody’s wood-frame building,” Mulligan said. “I’m not a big proponent of more rules.”
But Gallagher, the Acushnet fire chief who also serves on the Massachusetts building regulations board, said the use of lightweight wood construction materials has “run amok in this state” and rules are needed that put more emphasis on public safety.
For nearly a decade, Acushnet has been requiring decals on the windows of buildings, indicating whether lightweight wood truss construction is used in the roofs, floors, or both, so firefighters know the potential danger of collapse if there’s a fire. It’s unclear if any other Massachusetts communities have followed suit.
Now fire officials say they hope the bill calling for a commission to study fire risks from lightweight wood construction will gain traction following the recent fires.
Senator Michael Brady, a Brockton Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security is expected to take up all fire-related bills after Labor Day.
“Just looking into this makes sense,” Brady said.