(Appeared in print as "Fight Fire with Knowledge")
Many readers know that my dad was a firefighter. But his full-time job actually was as an upholsterer. He also had a shop in our basement and re-upholstered furniture on the side. I would watch for hours as dad peeled back wool frieze or heavy brocade coverings, revealing layers of cotton padding, horsehair, webbing and metal springs that covered a heavy wooden frame. The furniture from 40 years ago was solid, heavy and well-crafted, unlike the stapled, lightweight frames and synthetic materials of today’s home furnishings.
Underwriters Laboratories has been studying rates of acceleration of those newer household furnishings. Researchers found that furnishings made from synthetic, petroleum materials burned faster and produced more toxic smoke than furniture made from heavy woods, cotton, wool and other natural materials.
Such research is of great interest to Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator Glenn Gaines. He had heard from numerous fire-service leaders that the speed and severity of residential fires that have changed dramatically in recent years. So Gaines has been studying the UL research. Also, the funded a National Institute of Standards and Technology research project on increased rates of flashover and heat output from burning contemporary furnishings.
The results of those simulated fires were overwhelming: Flashover occurred within 3 to 5 minutes and heating output was five times greater than that of legacy furnishings.
As Gaines traveled the country and met with more fire-service leaders and scientists, his concern grew: Residential fires are responsible for 84% of civilian fire deaths and 77% of fire injuries. Add to that concerns over an aging population: 80 million baby boomers turned 65 last year.
“They will be older, less nimble and less able to egress,” said Gaines.
Gaines decided that it was the right time for the USFA to take action. It will host the “Residential Fire Growth Forum” next month at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. USFA has invited fire-service leaders, scientists and regulatory agencies to participate in the forum, which will include keynote speakers and three interactive panel discussions on buildings, home furnishings and fire-department response.
Gaines hopes the forum will:
- Increase awareness among fire-service and life-safety officials of changing and emerging combustion risks to residential building occupants.
- Produce a document that clearly identifies contributing factors to the marked increase in the speed of fire spread experienced in interior residential fires.
- Identify the specific risks and their severity.
- Identify potential solutions to mitigate, if not prevent, risk and vulnerabilities associated with rapid fire growth patterns.
- Determine which organizations or agencies are interested or authorized to continue studying the problem and develop mitigation strategies, requirements or programs to mitigate, if not prevent, risks and vulnerabilities to occupants of residential buildings.
“It is our statutory responsibility to bring focus to the information and the data of this problem,” Gaines said.
Several years ago, fire service and industry leaders gathered in Florida to discuss how to change the culture of the fire service and reduce the number of line-of-duty deaths. That summit produced the “Everyone Goes Home” campaign. Gaines hopes to find similar success by bringing attention to the escalating problem created by modern technology.
What can you do to raise awareness about the changing severity of home fires?