Modern furnishings up the stakes for escaping a fire - KCTV5 News

Modern furnishings up the stakes for escaping a fire

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For the last several years, firefighters have noticed a stunning trend in house fires. Homes are burning faster, hotter and more toxic. (KCTV5) For the last several years, firefighters have noticed a stunning trend in house fires. Homes are burning faster, hotter and more toxic. (KCTV5)

For the last several years, firefighters have noticed a stunning trend in house fires. Homes are burning faster, hotter and more toxic.

KCTV5 anchor Brad Stephens teamed up with the Overland Park Fire Department for a demonstration to show why this is happening.

KCTV5 gathered furnishings for two rooms. In one room, furniture that predates 1970 and made of mostly natural fibers.  Firefighters call this "legacy furniture." In the other room, modern furniture you’d find in most homes.

"It used to be when things were made of natural materials like wood and cottons, it took longer for the fire to grow," Overland Park arson investigator Mike Day said. "Now you have things made out of plastic and petroleum based and fires grow much more quickly. That means the amount of time you have to be able to get out safely and stay out is getting shorter."

Both rooms are fitted with thermal couplers on the floor, at four feet and the ceiling to illustrate the temperatures throughout the fire.

In each of our rooms, a smoke detector is installed on the ceiling.

We start with our room filled with the legacy and natural furniture. A firefighter lights papers in the small trash can. Within eight seconds, the smoke alarm starts sounding. The fire spreads to the lamp and the curtains catch fire. The flames grow and the heat builds inside. Smoke starts to billow out of the room.

At two and a half minutes the temperature along the ceiling is over 600 degrees Fahrenheit, however the temperatures at floor level and four feet is barely registering. You could still get out of this fire alive, especially if you crawled along the floor to avoid the smoke.

Overland Park Fire Marshall Mike Sweany says the fire is going exactly how he thought it would. It’s a slow and steady burn, yet deliberate.

The temperatures don’t change much until seven minutes into the burn. At that point, the fire starts to rage. Thirty seconds later, flashover happens, which is the near-simultaneous ignition of most everything in the room. At this point, temperatures have reached 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. It is not longer possible to get out of this fire alive.

Overland Park firefighters rush in and put out the fire.

Next is the modern home. Firefighters set the same fire in a trashcan near the curtains. In less than two minutes, it becomes clear this is a very different fire. The smoke smells and looks different. It’s almost a chemical smell, like burning plastic. It’s darker than the smoke in the legacy room.

Within three minutes the fire is getting out of control. Not even 30 seconds later, the fire flashes over. At this point, the temperature at the ceiling is over 1,800  degrees Fahrenheit, at the four foot level it’s just under 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and the floor is 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

The fire in the modern room, burned hotter and flashed in half the time of the legacy home.

When asked just how long someone would have to escape this fire, Sweany says, "I would say you’d want to get out with a minute. Two and you’re pushing it."

The message firefighters want to send, isn’t outfitting your home with antique furniture to give you more time to escape a fire. Their message is the importance of smoke alarms and a fire escape plan.

Overland Park Fire Department’s public education specialist Tricia Roberts says everyone knows smoke detectors are vital but they’re often not top of mind for families.

"Especially if you have a fire at night and you’re not going to know that you’ve got an issue going on unless you have something to alert you to it," says Robert.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends:

  • Installing smoke alarms inside and outside each bedroom and sleeping area.
  • Smoke alarm needs to be in every level of the home and in the basement.
  • If possible, interconnect the smoke alarms, so when one sounds they all sound.
  • Test all smoke alarms once a month, by pressing the test button to make sure they work.
  • Replace all smoke alarms that are more than 10 years old.
  • There are special alarms for those who are hard of hearing or deaf that have strobe lights and bed shakers.

If you cannot afford a smoke detector, many fire departments can supply one for free.

For fire escape plans, the NFPA recommends:

  • Walking through your home with your family, inspecting all the possible exits and escape routes.
  • Go over and walk through the escape plan several times.
  • Choose an outside place everyone should meet at. It could be the mailbox or a light post. Make sure it’s a safe distance from the home.
  • If there are infants, older adults or anyone in the home with mobility limitations, make sure someone is assigned to assist them in the event of an emergency.
  • Make sure children know once they’re out, stay out. Don’t go back inside.

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