OLIVE BRANCH, MS (WMC) - "The fire usually doesn't get you first. The smoke does."
Dave Taylor's admonition doubles as a warning about today's modern furniture and a clarion call for working smoke detectors.
The Olive Branch, Mississippi, Fire Department captain and his company proved how quickly and dangerously furniture made of petroleum-based synthetics burns in a mock-up between modern furniture and "legacy" furniture made primarily of wood and natural fibers.
Watching the demonstration, Chris Ellis didn't need convincing. "This brings back some memories," he said.
Four months ago, Ellis and his family woke up to their smoke detector wailing. Their Olive Branch home, full of smoke. A spark or explosion under the hood of his '73 GMC truck had lit a fire in the garage. Also in the garage: both antique and modern furniture, made primarily of petroleum-based synthetics. "The only thing I could see was black smoke," he said.
He blindly reached the garage access door to activate the garage door as flames licked from the truck. He got his family out and grabbed his garden hose. "By the time I got back to the garage, I see the flames are already over the roof," he said. He said the synthetic materials of the modern furniture stored in the garage accelerated the burn rate so quickly, the fire had spread from under the hood to over the roof in two minutes.
Now Ellis is looking on as Olive Branch firefighters approach two rooms constructed by Paul Davis Restoration on the grounds of the department's training facility. With lit candles tipped over, they set a sofa on fire in each room: one, a legacy sofa made of cotton fibers, polyester and wood; the other, a modern sofa made of polyurethane foam and synthetic fibers. The rooms also included accessories and tables donated by Memphis Goodwill, Inc.
Within three minutes, both sofas are burning, but the modern-sofa room is thick with black smoke. "The actual color of the smoke was a lot thicker, a lot darker (than in the legacy room)," Taylor said. "The plastics are going to burn a lot faster and a lot hotter."
After firefighters extinguished both rooms when they hit flash-over at the five minute mark, the legacy room's walls and ceiling still sported spots of untouched white sheet rock.The modern room was pitch black -- a hotter heat signature.
It was the spitting image of the ceiling in Chris Ellis's burned out garage.
"Seeing is believing," Ellis said. "It's the furniture. People don't realize until they see it, and I saw it first-hand."
In 2012, Underwriters Laboratories conducted a larger-scale scientific test, using multiple legacy and modern-furnished rooms. According to the UL report, "...all of the modern rooms transitioned to flash-over...in less than five minutes while the fastest legacy room to achieve flash-over did so at in over 29 minutes." The rooms with modern furniture burned nearly six times faster.
Taylor added it's not just modern furniture firefighters dread. It's also the modern construction of energy-efficient homes. "You have double-paned windows, sealed doors...a modern home will actually hold the heat longer than a legacy construction," he said.
From the UL report: "There has been a steady change in the residential fire environment over the past several decades. These changes include larger homes, more open floor plans and volumes, increased synthetic fuel loads and new construction materials. The larger the home is, the more air available to sustain and grow a fire in that home...Modern windows (more energy efficient) and interior doors fail faster than their legacy counterparts. The windows failed in half the time and the doors failed in approximately 5 min. If a fire in a closed room is able to get air to burn from a failed window, then it can burn through a door and extend to the rest of the house. This can lead to faster fire propagation, rapid changes in fire dynamics and shorter escape times for occupants as well as firefighters."
The WMC Action News 5 Investigators consulted three furniture manufacturers, a furniture refurbishing company, an upholsterer and a Texas-based company that manufactures a fire-retardant chemical. Each of them said there is no reliable product on the consumer market that can be applied to existing furniture to make it fire-retardant or fire-resistant. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has advocated requiring smoke activated sprinklers in homes, but policy-makers have had little desire to mandate them.
It all leads back to smoke detectors. Remember, a smoke detector is what alerted Ellis's family. "It definitely saved our lives," he said. "It definitely gave us time to get out."
"Smoke detectors are going to be the first hint of danger," Taylor said. "Check the batteries on your smoke detectors regularly. A smoke detector has a 10-year shelf-life. If your smoke detectors are older than 10 years, you need to replace them."
SMOKE ALARM STATISTICS (Source: NFPA):
- In 2009-2013, smoke alarms sounded in more than half (53%) of the home fires reported to U.S. fire departments.
- Three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms (38%) or no working smoke alarms (21%).
- No smoke alarms were present in almost two out of every five (38%) home fire deaths.
- The death rate per 100 reported home fires was more than twice as high in homes that did not have any working smoke alarms compared to the rate in homes with working smoke alarms (1.18 deaths vs. 0.53 deaths per 100 fires).
- In fires in which the smoke alarms were present but did not operate, almost half (46%) of the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries.
- Dead batteries caused one-quarter (24%) of the smoke alarm failures.