House Fires Become Untenable After Only 3 Minutes: NIST 2008 study

From the National Institute of Standards and Technology

Both common residential smoke alarm technologies (ionization and photoelectric) provided positive escape times in most fire scenarios with the ionization type reacting earlier to flaming fires and the photoelectric type reacting earlier to smoldering fires. The main difference from the earlier work (1975 study) is that the amount of escape time provided is consistently less. For example, average times to untenable conditions for flaming tests was 3 min compared to 17 min in the prior work. While some of this difference may be attributed to the tenability criteria used in the current study, it is also clear that fire growth in the current tests are significantly faster than in the earlier tests.

According to estimates by the National Fire Protection Association and the U. S. Fire Administration, U. S. home usage of smoke alarms rose from less than 10 % in 1975 to at least 95 % in 2000, while the number of home fire deaths was cut nearly in half. Thus the home smoke alarm is credited as the greatest success story in fire safety in the last part of the 20th century, because it alone represented a highly effective fire safety technology with leverage on most of the fire death problem that went from only token usage to nearly universal usage in a remarkably short time. Other highly effective fire safety technologies either affect a smaller share of the fire death problem (e.g., child-resistant lighter, cigarette-resistant mattress or upholstered furniture) or have yet to see more than token usage (e.g., home fire sprinkler, reduced ignition-strength cigarette).

An analysis of residential fire statistics was conducted for this study to identify the important fire scenarios that were included in the study. Flaming and smoldering upholstered furniture and mattresses account for the top four most deadly fire scenarios. Flaming cooking materials are involved more than five times more frequently than any other material. These scenarios included the top five ranked by number of deaths, and among the top ten ranked by frequency of occurrence.

(Editors Note: So be careful not only during the holidays, but all the time.)
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