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Research aims to reduce damage in home fires

Professor Steve Cramer and Onesty Friday examine drywall

CEE Professor Steve Cramer and structural engineering graduate student Onesty Friday examine pieces of drywall tested in the tensile and compression loading machine behind them. The data obtained from the tests will help Cramer and his students understand the basic properties of gypsum drywall. (39K JPG)

A lifetime of fire safety research really hit home for Steve Cramer early one morning in the spring of 1992. At about 4 a.m., the UW-Madison civil and environmental engineering professor woke to the smell of smoke: a small appliance in his children's bedroom was on fire. Cramer rushed his pajama-clad family to safety then bounded back to the bedroom and extinguished the fire before it engulfed the room.

"You get a different technical perspective when it happens to you," he said. "It was really a jolt."

The experience makes Cramer even more passionate when it comes to fire safety research. With the help of a National Science Foundation grant, Cramer recently embarked on a two-year project aimed at reducing the estimated 4,000 deaths, 17,000 injuries, and $6 billion in property damage caused each year by fires in residential construction.

The project will develop guidelines for improving fire resistant construction using gypsum drywall, a fire resistant material routinely used in light frame construction like homes and smaller commercial buildings.

When gypsum heats up, it chemically releases moisture, and the energy created by the fire's heat drives that moisture to the surface. This process delays the effects of the fire, protecting the wood or steel frames in the walls, roof and floor for a longer length of time.

Standard fire tests used to approve construction techniques show that building frames burn quickly once gypsum drywall falls from the area it is supposed to be protecting.

"When the gypsum comes down, it's all over," said Cramer. "Finding a way to keep the gypsum attached to walls and ceilings longer would provide an important delay in the development of a fire."

Cramer admits that the project only covers a small part of the fire destruction problem, but finding a way to keep the protective parts of a structure in place longer would extend a building's life during a fire.

"We're not talking about something exotic like a new building design or adding such a vast expense to construction that people aren't willing to pay," said Cramer. "We're talking about something that may cost little or nothing, but might give a few precious minutes in a fire."

Cramer anticipates several major results in this project. First, the research will allow him to develop a database of basic gypsum board properties for fire-endurance design. Then he'll identify causes of failure for the fire-resistant gypsum and create a mechanism to extend the life of drywall during a fire.

Not surprisingly, Cramer's own experiences have stoked his interest in fire. "My own experience with a home fire gives me a more personal perspective on the technical problem," said Cramer. "Fires tend to be very emotional, dramatic events that have a big impact on people's lives. It's not often that an engineer can experience the bigger picture."