As a result of open floor plans and synthetic furnishings and building materials, house fires are spreading faster than ever before. But research tells us that a simple behavior change by residents could save lives and aid firefighters.
There’s a saying in sports that “speed kills.” In essence, coaches and fans love athletes who can beat their opponents with unmatched quickness on the field, ice or court. But in the unfortunate event of a house fire, the speed that a fire spreads is making it significantly more difficult for people to escape their homes. And in many of these cases, that speed actually kills.
The pace at which a fire races through a home has increased at a dramatic and deadly rate. About 40 years ago, people had an average of 17 minutes to escape a burning home after the activation of a smoke alarm. Today, that window has shrunk to about three minutes or less. Natural furnishings and building materials have given way to synthetics, which burn much faster. Combine that with the popularity of open floor plans and it becomes the perfect environment for an escalating fire.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 379,000 residential structure fires in the US in 2017. As a result, they saw 10,600 civilian injuries and 2,630 civilian deaths. Broken down even further, the numbers show that one home structure fire was reported every 88 seconds, one civilian fire injury was reported every 36 minutes and one civilian fire death occurred every 2 hours and 34 minutes. These numbers are staggering, especially when it comes to injuries and deaths. Over the last decade, the number of home fire deaths has remained fairly steady but the rate of home fire deaths per 1000 home fires has trended upward. We need to do more to reverse this trend.
But a simple act – one that takes under 10 seconds to complete – could have a potentially life-saving impact during a fire. One that could not only help those in the fire, but also those fighting it.
UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute (FSRI) found that rooms with closed doors had average temperatures of less than 100 degrees and 100 parts per million of carbon monoxide, compared to 1,000+ degrees and over 10,000 parts per million of carbon monoxide in the rooms with open doors. Additionally, oxygen levels remain at a breathable 18% in rooms with closed doors and reduce to only 8% in rooms with open doors.
From a firefighter’s perspective, this data reinforces the importance of confining the fire, isolating rooms, coordinating ventilation, utilizing door control, performing VEIS and sheltering in place, all when conditions allow.
From the perspective of a resident, however, this has a potentially life-saving impact. Not only does the closed door act as a shield from the flames, it also maintains breathable oxygen levels and protects victims from dangerous levels of smoke and carbon monoxide for a much longer period of time.
To highlight this dramatic difference, UL FSRI recently launched its third-annual “Close Before You Doze” fire safety campaign during Fire Prevention Month in October.
Data shows that about half of home fire deaths result from fires reported between 11pm and 7am, when most people are asleep. This is why the ongoing public education initiative encourages all first responders – from members of the fire service to police officers and 9-1-1 dispatchers – to help the people in their communities understand how to contain a house fire and recognize the importance of closing the doors inside their homes, particularly before bedtime.
This comes back to what we know about how fire behaves.
Firefighters know that a fire relies on three elements to keep burning – fuel, heat and oxygen. Research has shown us that the amount of fuel and heat that are available have a direct impact on the growth of a fire, but it is the amount of oxygen that makes the biggest difference in how fast the fire is able to release heat. Simply put, when you control the oxygen you will have much more control over the fire. Whether you’re in a single-family house or an apartment building, fires in closed structures will continue to grow until they become ventilation limited.
Additionally, we know that we need to be mindful that a fire starved for oxygen will change rapidly when that oxygen is supplied by, say, opening a door or window. Coordinating ventilation with suppression is key.
But the general public doesn’t understand the intricacies of fire science. Why would they? This is why it’s critical for fire service professionals to help educate them about the significant impact a closed door can have on the occupants of a burning house. That message needs to be disseminated widely throughout every community in order to make a real difference. Once closing doors becomes second nature in every household around the world, we will make more progress towards decreasing fire fatalities.
Ultimately, the goal is for every family to make sure they close all of their doors – bedrooms, bathrooms and basement – at night in order to starve any potential fire of the oxygen it requires to grow. In the unfortunate event of a fire, it will give you and your family much more time to escape.
Along with faster moving fires comes a need for firefighters to increase our operational tempo – fast fires need fast firefighters. But it also calls for residents to update their fire safety procedures. To help residents maximize their chances of survival during a fast-moving house fire, we all benefit by driving home the following safety measures when communicating with the public:
- Close all your doors each and every night.
- Check all your smoke and CO alarms monthly – make sure they’re in working condition. Install smoke alarms in every sleeping room and outside each separate sleeping area. Install alarms on every level of the home. Smoke alarms should also be interconnected. When one sounds, they all sound.
- If a fire ignites and you can get out safely, do so quickly and close doors behind you as you exit. If you can’t get out safely, put a closed door between you and the fire to buy yourself valuable time. Don’t ever go back inside a burning home.
- For parents worried about hearing their child through a door closed, simply place a baby monitor in the child’s room. If you can’t get to their room because you’re cut off by smoke, know that the closed door will provide a safety barrier – giving them more time for help to arrive.
- Have an escape plan. Identify multiple escape routes from every room and regularly practice them as a family at various hours.
Saving the lives of civilians in any emergency situation is a team effort. The more first responders can work together to educate their communities; the safer families will be. For more information and other collateral to help communicate this important fire safety information, visit UL FSRI’s First Responder Toolbox.
For more information, go to firstresponders.closeyourdoor.org/toolbox/