Gusset plates could be dangerous in certain home fires

By Gene Petriello - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - There could be a fire danger lurking in your home. One, that could cause your house to collapse in a fire.

It has the Richmond Fire Department worried for everyone's safety. But construction workers say things aren't that bad.

It all started back in October. A furnace fire turned out to be nothing in a South Richmond home. But the fire department found something else in the attic. It's called a gusset plate.

Firefighters cringe when they see those. Contractors however, don't. We investigate the safety of gusset plates in a big fire.

Sara Pena moved into a South Richmond home with her family about a year ago. She is now living in one of the newer homes in Richmond and may have a fire danger right above her head. "I'm concerned the house is going to fall on top of us."

She is worried after a major discovery in her attic by Richmond Fire crews. They are called gusset plates.

"If this attic is under heavy fire, we are talking 20-30 minutes before one of these structures will collapse. 15-20 minutes difference," said Lt. Shawn Jones with the Richmond Fire Department.

The exact time depends on the intensity of the fire and the thickness of the wood beams in your home.

You can find these plates in 70 to 80 percent of newer homes in Richmond, Joanie's home included. "I was surprised. I didn't know what you were talking about. I thought everything was fine up there."

Fine in normal circumstances. But in a big fire, firefighters are worried homes will collapse faster, possibly trapping you, your family and firefighters too.

Dozens of firefighters have died because of this. But some contractors who build these beams, say not so fast.

"During a fire, a home has failure of all of its components because of the intensity of the heat and trusses are just one of those components," said Alan Files, a Charles City County contractor.

He gave us a study that shows these plates could melt and collapse faster than traditional construction. But it depends on the type of materials you have in your home.

That study also shows there is little difference in the time it takes to collapse. He points to a home in Henrico County that recently went up in flames. The roof was damaged. But the plates stayed intact.

He's seen similar results in the past. "I've never seen one of these melt. I've been doing this for 16 years," added Files.

Bottom line, if you look in your house tonight and see this in the attic, both sides agree these plates are okay. But now is the time to take action to protect yourself. Sprinklers are one option.

"Now a days, you think of the cost of sprinklers and you ask, is it worth it? Certainly it is," said Jones.

Also make sure your smoke detectors work, and you have an escape plan. Also, ask your contractor questions. That's what Joanie is doing now. "Just remember, a home can be replaced. A life can't."

The fire department drives around looking to see what homes may have these gusset plates.

Files adds, you can always tell your contractor you don't want these plates in your home.

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