Are building codes going far enough to keep residents safe?

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by Maggie Crane / News 4

KMOV.com

Posted on July 18, 2012 at 9:27 PM

Updated Thursday, Jul 19 at 4:38 AM

ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The St. Louis Fire Chief described the fire that devoured the 3949 Apartments on Lindell Boulevard a “perfect storm,” citing dry, hot conditions coupled with “light construction.”

Chief Dennis Jenkerson said new, man-made building materials are coming onto the market every day.  He said it’s fire fighters job to make sure they’re safe.  It made us wonder at News 4 whether current building codes are keeping up with the building industry.

News 4 learned the city follows the International Building Code and that any immediate changes are unlikely.

An inspector from the American Society of Home Inspectors says, whether it’s an apartment complex or a new subdivision, everyone wants homes and buildings constructed faster and for less money.  He says he sees that leading many builders to use only the minimum code-compliant materials.

The flames that turned the Central West End apartments on into an inferno Tuesday night pushed quickly through the building.  Chief Jenkerson says it was inspected and up to code and that it had a working sprinkler system.  He blames what he calls lightweight construction for fueling the flames.

“They’re going to a different type of material as opposed to using standard 2x4, 2x6, 2x10, which is solid wood, they’re going for a lot of particle-board construction, OSNB board, which is a new industry trend,” Chief Jenkerson said.

News 4 took those concerns to Jim Brennan.  The member of the Home Builder’s Association owns McKelvey Homes, now building in St. Peters.

Fire fighters say many new construction materials are cheaper and that they burn hotter and faster.  We asked Brennan if those materials, like the particle board the chief mentioned, put people at risk.

“I don’t believe it is.  With the smoke detectors we have, you know many of the products today are different from what we had years ago,” Brennan said, noting that smoke detectors installed in McKelvey Homes are now hard-wired together with a battery backup.

Brennan insists homes have gotten safer over the years, pointing to advances in everything from windows to wiring to fire-rated drywall installed around garages and fireplaces—places fires are more likely to spark.

Brennan says his builders follow rigorous codes—something fire departments are constantly fighting to make tougher.          

“You have to be able to balance the cost, and from our perspective, we want to be able to make it as safe as possible,” Chief Jenkerson said.

But the chief says stricter codes may not have been enough to save the apartment building.  He says even furniture has gotten more flammable.

“Just the contents of a normal room 25-30 years ago we had wool, cotton and standard wood,” Chief Jenkerson said.  “Now you go into most homes, you’ve got man-made materials like fiberglass, foam, rubber, you’ve got all synthetics, and it burns hotter, burns quicker, and puts off terrible gases.”

It all adds to a perfect storm for fire fighters to battle.

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