Chief: Greenwood apartment fire highlights weakness in building codes

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GREENWOOD, Ind. – Fire officials say a massive apartment fire two months ago in Greenwood highlighted a weakness in Indiana building codes that they would like to see changed.

The fire displaced 59 residents during the overnight hours and resulted in injuries to one civilian and one firefighter.

Investigators determined the April 14 fire at the Meridian Oaks apartment originated on an outdoor, second floor balcony. While the exact cause is not known, it’s believed that some kind of human error, possibly a cigarette butt or other discarded material, ignited the wooden balcony before the flames spread to vinyl siding on the building’s exterior wall.

“It went right up the vinyl siding,” said White River Township Fire Chief, Jeremy Pell. “Behind that is a Styrofoam insulation, and from there it went into the attic. Fire grows more quickly if it has better fuel and vinyl siding and Styrofoam board is great fuel.”

Pell said the construction of the building was in line with Indiana building codes.

“The flaw is not in any violation or circumventing the rules,” he stated. “The flaw is in the rules.”

Chief Pell is among many fire officials who would like to see building codes changed to eliminate the use of vinyl siding in the construction of large buildings like apartment complexes.

“This type of construction, this vinyl siding, lowers and shrinks the amount of time we have to execute a rescue,” Pell said.

It’s a conversation that’s been going on for years.

“Ever since vinyl came on the market and replaced aluminum siding,” said Greenwood Fire Chief Darin Hoggatt. “It’s been a long time.”

“There are benefits to the performance of vinyl, but there are also hazards that are inherent to it under abnormal conditions,” said Zionsville Deputy Fire Chief Joshua Frost.

Instead of using vinyl siding, Pell, Hoggatt and others would like to see developers build with non-combustible materials like brick, masonry or cement-based siding like “Hardie Board.”

“It just doesn’t burn,” Pell said. “It just doesn’t give the fire any fuel.”

However, Pell, Hoggatt, Frost and others agree requiring such a change is a long shot.

Brick, masonry and cement-based siding are much more expensive than vinyl siding. Banning vinyl would have wide-ranging impacts on construction costs which would likely be passed onto renters and put further limitations on affordable housing options.

Whether the change is required or not, Pell hopes more developers will move away from using vinyl siding on new construction as a matter of public safety.

“Cheap is not always less expensive,” he said. “We’re a very intelligent society, and we’re a very progressive community. And we can find ways to balance affordable housing with safe housing.”

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