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Fire in College Park, MD, Again Highlights Need for Legislative Action

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This past Monday, April 24, a 5-alarm fire in College Park, MD, adjacent to the University of Maryland's main campus quickly became the largest firefighting effort in Prince George's County history. More than 200 firefighters and EMS personnel were involved using more than 50 vehicles. Two firefighters were injured, a senior center adjacent to the building was evacuated and classes were cancelled at the University of Maryland as a result of the poor air quality due to heavy and toxic smoke in the area. The building was 60 days away from occupancy. Sprinklers were installed but not active. Acting Chief of the Prince George’s County Fire Department, Ben Barksdale, said in a press conference, "We can see today how much of a problem it is. Once that fire gets to those void spaces, and starts attacking those structural components and all that wood, it’s very hard to catch up to it, especially if you don’t have access to get right up to it."

The building was 6-7 stories, comprised of mixed-use podium-style, light-framed combustible wood construction with a "donut wrap," defined in this case as two buildings with a courtyard in the middle and a 3-hour fire wall separating the two buildings. The back side of the complex faces a residential neighborhood, where there is no street access for fire trucks. As a result, it's hard to get equipment to the back side, where the fire had spread.

On Tuesday, February 21, the Maryland State Senate committee on Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs heard testimony on Senate Bill 722, introduced by Committee Chairwoman Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore City, and House Bill 1311 introduced by Delegate Cory McCray that sought to limit dangerous light-framed, combustible wood construction in low- to mid-rise residential buildings throughout the state. Due to heavy opposition from developers and builders, the legislature declined to act.

"There have been enough events like this around the country and in our backyard to know that it’s past time to find some meaningful solutions that prevent more fires like this from happening in the future," said Steve Lohr, fire chief for the city of Hagerstown, MD, and the former fire chief for Montgomery County, MD. "The Maryland state legislature missed an opportunity to do this, but it’s not too late to ignore the special interests that threaten the well-being of state residents."

Does this sound familiar...AGAIN? There are nearly a dozen pieces of legislation in other states (including New Jersey) that address this very issue and, most importantly, come from the logical construct that most of us have come to realize: This type of construction using wood is not safe. It burns, and we need to find ways to control the fire or prevent it from ever happening by building with safer, fire-resistant materials, such as concrete or steel. Through the Build with Strength initiative, NRMCA has resources to help members and state affiliates advocate for resilient and safer construction, including model legislation, talking points, public relations and other key strategies.
To learn more about how NRMCA can assist in state advocacy, please contact John Loyer, vice president of state and local government affairs, at 703-675-7603 or

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