Modular Concerns: Do We Have a Problem?
By Kevin A. Gallagher
While standing in front of a burning two-story residence in 2008, I never imagined that the fire consuming the home would ignite so much interest in a topic that I (and the rest of the fire service) knew very little about. The fire was in a prefabricated (modular) structure and caused by an improperly discarded cigarette. Despite our department’s best efforts, the structure was a complete loss. Truth is, we never had a chance to save it.
The results of our research to learn about the methods of construction used by the modular industry were the subject of a May 2009 article in Fire Engineering.1 What we continue to learn as well as our efforts at addressing this topic’s serious flaws are the topics of a feature article in the October 2013 issue.
The first inkling that something was amiss came during a postincident visit to the library of the National Fire Protections Association (NFPA). As a resident of Massachusetts, the NFPA’s headquarters is close by. Despite the considerable effort of the library’s staff, we could not find any literature on the topic of modular construction in general or fires in modular structures in particular. With the encouragement of Bobby Halton, Jack Murphy, Vincent Dunn, and others, I began writing on the very serious concerns we were discovering: large void spaces between levels of habitation, the use of flammable adhesives as the sole means of attaching gypsum to wood ceiling joists, and the presence of holes used to assist in lifting modular boxes onto the foundation, which can create an easy pathway for fire spread.
As we talked about these issues and wrote of our concerns, more and more fire service leaders began to pay attention. The upcoming fifth edition of Brannigan’s Building Construction for the Fire Service will include a section on modular construction thanks to Glenn Corbett.2 I’ve been fortunate to speak on these topics at FDIC, at a NFPA annual conference and, most recently, at the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs conference. The “take away” is always the same—firefighters admit that they were always curious about homes that show up on tractor trailers while never knowing of the hazards within.
Our goal has been two-fold. First, we identify the flaws with the construction methods used. Second, we fight for change through the code development process. Third, we spread the word to any and all fire service members of these hazards and the tactical changes the hazards require.
Over the next several months, I will take each of the concerns outlined in this month’s feature article and drill them down into the details. I will discuss the 2008 fire that occurred in my community as well as the fire written by Jerry Knapp that occurred a few months ago in New York. The similarities between these two fires are astonishing, which involved careless disposal of smoking materials outside the structure, rapid fire spread, and explosive speed. As Jerry would tell you, his department never had a chance.
Before I focus too much on the construction process or fire service concerns, I will try to gauge the extent of the problem. Any good manager will tell you that you invest your time fixing those things that are problematic. Do we have a national fire problem with modular homes? Have similar fires occurred before the Acushnet fire in 2008 or the fire in West Haverstraw, New York, in May 2013? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions.
Now, before you accuse me of “flip-flopping” (is it a problem or not?), I must explain that there is no coordinated method of collecting this type of data. Most departments use some form of standardized reporting procedures where information from incidents to which we respond is collected, packaged, and shipped off to a database. In Massachusetts, we report to the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System (MFIRS). There, data is analyzed, trends developed, and policy impacted by cold, hard facts.
The same type of system is used at the national level through the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). If any place should have the “411” on fires in modular structures, it’s these repositories of all our report writing and proper data code selection. But therein lays the problem; there is no specific code for identifying a subset of wood frame construction in these reports or, even that the structure was wood framed! The current version of NFIRS went live in 2001. Although “Structure Type” is a mandatory field, the options are not the NFPA construction types with which we are all familiar. Instead of collecting data on the type of construction used in the building that burned (wood framed, steel, masonry, and so on), we are asked to report if the structure was enclosed, a fixed portable, an open structure, or a tent. Without a “wood frame” category followed by a “prefabricated” subcategory, the data sitting in the reporting systems is of no use when attempting to identify the existence of a potentially serious problem. That could be part of the reason the NFPA library failed to find any reference to anything modular.
The current version of NFIRS is 12 years old. With all the modern construction techniques currently in play—techniques with which the fire service has legitimate concerns—it may be time for an upgrade. Sooner than later, I would hope that the National Fire Data Center3 would consider adding the necessary data collection fields so we could distinguish between fires in site built and factory built structures (as well as fires in structures using trusses, laminated beams, and so on).
Lacking coordinated data collection, we are forced to search for ourselves. For your benefit, use an internet search engine to set up a news feed.4 Have the service send you news reports on fires in modular homes by email. I set this up a few years ago and not a week goes by that I don’t receive a link to an article or television report on a fire involving modular construction. I shudder each time I hear a fire officer quoted as saying “It was gone before we got there.” They too never had a chance.
A word of caution: there is a very clear distinction between modular structures (wood frame, built in a factory, transported over the road, and set on top of a foundation) and modular homes (HUD governed residences built on axels, commonly referred to as single or double wides). Our experiences and our research covers modular structures, from simple capes to multibox “McMansions.”
Do we have a problem? My answer, since the moment I pulled up on a fire in a modular structure, is an emphatic YES! My sense is that those firefighters who have dealt with fires in these types of buildings would agree.
In the months that follow, I will dig deeper, share valuable information and, hopefully, provide you with an awareness and appreciation for the hazards within modular construction.
Kevin A. Gallagher has served with the Acushnet (MA) Fire EMS Department since 1986, where he was appointed as chief in 2003. Gallagher has an associate degree in fire science and a bachelor’s degree in political science. He is an adjunct instructor in the Fire Science Program at Bristol Community College. Gallagher serves as the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts representative to the Board of Building Regulations and Standards, the Massachusetts board responsible for overseeing the state’s building code. He has contributed articles to Fire Engineering and has taught several classes at FDIC on the issue of modular construction.