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I-Team: Lightweight Beams May Contribute To Devastating House Fires

BOSTON (CBS) - The I-Team investigates a widely used building material that could pose a serious danger. It's the same material that firefighters say contributed to a massive fire that tore through a New Jersey apartment building and it's also in thousands of New England homes.

If you look closely at many new home construction sites, chances are you'll see them - lightweight engineered I-beams or trusses. They are made of composite wood material and are often used to support floors and roofs. Builders love them because they are strong and cheap, but they have one major flaw, according to Chief Kevin Gallagher of the Acushnet Fire Department. "Lightweight construction materials we know fail early when exposed to these fires," he said.

One person who knows all about this danger it is Wisconsin firefighter, Jo Brinkley-Chaudoir. "People have no clue what this lightweight construction means to their safety if there is a fire," she said. Brinkley-Chaudoir and her partner entered a smoke-filled home built with the I-beams. Within seconds the floor collapsed underneath them. She fell 11 feet into the basement. "The whole room exploded into fire," she recalled. "Everything in the room was burning, everything. I'm going to die in here if I don't get out of here," she recalled. Jo did manage to find her way to a window and got out. Her partner, Arnie Wolff, was killed.

That story hits home for Chief Alan Sirois of the Agawam Fire Department. "Probably one of the closest calls that we have ever encountered," he said recalling a similar situation when his team responded to a fire in a newly constructed home. Two firefighters went inside to search the building, but they felt the floor sagging and quickly turned around. They managed to get out before the floor collapsed. "It would have been very scary and the potential for loss of life was very high," Chief Sirois said. Pictures of the burned out home show little left of those engineered I-beams.

The New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs, the NH Fire Marshal and the Gilford Fire Department agreed to show us exactly what happens to these materials in a fire. They set up a side-by-side test: on one side was an engineered I-beam, on the other was traditional solid wood. They set a fire underneath.

I-beam fire
I-beam destroyed by fire (WBZ-TV)

Even though this was not a scientific test, it did not take long to clearly see the difference in how the materials stood up to the flames. Within minutes the engineered I-beam was fully engulfed, and the solid wood beam was barely damaged. A few minutes later the fire had eaten holes clear through the I-beam. The solid wood was still fully intact.

Underwriters Laboratories did a scientific test and found traditional materials remained stable for 18 minutes in a fire. The lightweight materials lasted just six minutes.

Massachusetts recently changed the building code to require the beams be covered with sheetrock to slow down the burn rate to reach that 18 minute mark. Jo Brinkley-Chaudior believes that's a good solution. "If you have kids and a dog and you want to get out, you had better cover up your trusses because you don't have that kind of time," she said.

Even with the new code, there are countless houses out there that have exposed beams and there's been no change to the code in New Hampshire. It's something Belmont, New Hampshire Fire Chief David Parenti thinks about all the time because he really has no idea which homes have it and which don't. "The lightweight construction that we are seeing is everywhere now, everywhere, and it's scary," he said.

Ultimately firefighters would like to see residential sprinklers become law, but costs have made it difficult to pass. Some local communities have passed ordinances requiring homes built with lightweight construction materials to post a sign on the front of the home to warn firefighters.

Send tips for the I-Team to or call 617-779 TIPS

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