2012-11-02 / In the Know

Time to escape from residential fires

By George Oliver Special contributor

Fires in modern residential homes have become the most dangerous fires for firefighters to fight. Statistics show that residential fires are the most common type of fires that fire departments face and most civilian deaths from fire are a result of residential fires.

Due to modern fire prevention programs and safer consumer products we have seen a national decline in the numbers of structure fires each year, however, firefighter fatalities have been holding steady at 80 to 90 line-ofduty deaths per year. This trend means that fires are getting more dangerous.

Some reasons for this could be the new lightweight construction methods used by modern contractors to save money along with the plastic and synthetic home furnishings we all buy today. This type of construction and furnishings are very common in newer residential structures.

A Underwriters Lab study recently measured the burn rates of two identical rooms in a laboratory setting. One contained modern, plastic and synthetic furnishings and one that contained older natural furnishings made of cotton and wood.

Participants of the study were asked to estimate the difference in the amount of time it would take each room to flashover (the industry terminology for the entire room to be on fire from floor to ceiling). The consensus answer was maybe a couple of minutes difference between the two rooms.

The actual result indicated that flashover occurred in about three and a half minutes for the modern room, and nearly 30 minutes for the room furnished with older, natural materials. That’s a significant difference and matches what firefighters are seeing in real life.

Older studies showed the public had 10 to 15 minutes to get out of a house if you were alerted in advance by smoke detectors. With today’s modern furnishings that are full of synthetics, and petroleum-based plastics it now takes less than four minutes before fire and smoke conditions become fatal.

So what does this mean to the average resident?

In the past, residents who had safely evacuated a home would sometimes go back in to rescue a dog or cat before we arrived. Sometimes it was successful, other times it proved to be fatal. Today, with lightweight construction and new-style furnishings, if a resident goes back into a house it will most likely be a fatal choice. It means when you hear a smoke detector sounding you need to act promptly. Wake the children and make sure everyone gets out as quickly as possible. You can’t imagine how fast four minutes goes by.

These new construction methods and the choices we have for furnishings are here to stay. There is little we can do about them. That’s why we promote residential sprinkler systems and constantly preach to get out and stay out as soon as your smoke detector sounds. As they say, the life you save may be your own.

If you have any questions about this article or any fire department issue you can contact the fire chief at mthurl@ci.scarborough.me.us or 730-4201.

George Oliver is captain and safety officer for Scarborough Fire Department.

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