Newer homes can burn 8 times faster than older homes

Does your family have an escape plan?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – New homes are being built using compressed wood for floor joists. While this normally would not mean much to the typical homeowner, it means a lot to firefighters.

Oriented strand board, commonly referred to as OSB, is made of wood pieces that are compressed together and then glued. They are being used as support beams. 

Underwriters laboratories, UL, an independent testing company, says it has discovered that these OSB beams burn 800 percent or eight times faster than solid wood beams, which were used to build older homes.

News4Jax put these beams to the test to see how quickly they burn. At the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department's training academy, firefighters set a controlled fire under two solid wood beams and two OSB beams. They were simulating a second-story fire.

After just 3½ minutes, the OSB beam collapsed. The solid wood beam was charred, but still intact.

"By the time they wake up and they call us and we get on scene, 4 to 6 minutes passed, this failed in less than that time," said Lt. Tracey Davis after observing the quick collapse. 

Davis said the fire melts the glue holding the compressed wood together, causing it to collapse sooner than the solid wood beams.

This is no surprise to Davis, who is a veteran firefighter with JFRD.

"The old-fashioned lumber (referring to the solid wood beams), they will start to sag. The new engineered lumber (OSB beams), doesn't fail until it's gone. It doesn't give you any warning. It doesn't start to sag; it's just gone," he explained.

Which is why he says it is so important that if a fire ever starts in your home, you get out immediately.

"They need to evacuate themselves because we may not be able to get there in time to get them out," said Davis.

Firefighter dies when floor collapses

On Feb. 12, a firefighter in Macon, Georgia, was killed when he fell through a floor into the basement of the home. Three other firefighters were also injured, one of them critically.

"It's basically because the lumber failed. That's how dangerous our environment we work in is," Davis said.

We do not know if OSB beams were built into the home in Macon where the floor collapsed. In general, Davis said floor and roof collapses are considered widow-makers for firefighters, and they know from experience that OSB burns fast.

Have an escape plan

Since most homeowners have no way of knowing if their home has OSB beams, the best protection is early detection. Smoke alarms are the best line of defense to alert homeowners to smoke from a house fire.

Few families, however, have a plan in place that teaches everyone in the household what to do if there were ever a fire.

Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Firefighters' Association, said all families should have a plan that is practiced every month by every single person who lives in the home.

"Show your children where the entire family should meet outside the home if ever there is a fire," said Wyse.

He said the most important thing to remember is to get out of the house immediately. Children should not try to find their parent. They should just get out of the house.

Watch video of escape plan demonstration

Other ways to survive a fire:

  • Wyse said to teach your children if they hear the smoke alarm to touch the doorknob to their room before they open a door. "If it's hot, don't open it," he said.
  • Use a bed sheet or clothes to stuff under the door to prevent smoke from getting into the room, if you are trapped.
  • Open a window or get out on a balcony if you cannot get out of the front door of your home. And yell for firefighters so they know where you are in the home.
  • Make sure there is a smoke alarm outside every bedroom.
  • For homes with more than one story, make sure you have a portable fire ladder.  It can be used to escape through a window or balcony. They are about $57 and are sold at most large hardware stores.
  • A big misconception is that you can douse a comforter in water and use it to protect yourself from fire, if you are trapped. Wyse said that is not a good idea.  Anything wet will turn into steam and will burn you.
  • You should have a fire extinguisher in your home, especially in your kitchen, since kitchen fires are common. Not all extinguishers are the same. Read the label to see where you should place it in your home. For example, extinguishers for kitchens are designed to put out grease fires and do not contain water, which can make it worse.
  • Teach young children not to be afraid of firefighters. "Their gear can sound like Darth Vadar, and they can look scary," said Wyse. "Many children run and hide under a bed. Tell them not to do that. Teach them that firefighters are their friend, go toward them, not away."

  • Fire alarm program

    The Red Cross is currently working with local firefighters in the state to provide fire alarms and fire escape planning to communities not able to afford them.  It's made possible thanks to sponsorship from Wells Fargo.

    Interested families may call the Northeast Florida Chapter of the American Red Cross at 904-358-8091 ext. 1803 or email to confirm their eligibility and schedule an appointment.

    Watch interview about the program

    About the Authors:

    Jennifer, who anchors The Morning Shows and is part of the I-TEAM, loves working in her hometown of Jacksonville.