It may sound like a cliche to trot out fire safety tips before the holiday season, but if there’s one statistic that bears repeating, it’s this: Even with adequate smoke alarms, a house fire today can become uncontrollable in less than three minutes.
That’s down from an average 17 minutes in 1975 — a whopping 82 percent difference.
And the reason for the drastic change, according to a report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, isn’t just the type of house you live in, but what you put inside.
A spokesperson for the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) said that the worst culprit in home fires is upholstered furniture, because it often contains highly flammable polyurethane foam. These all-too-common materials provide the fuel for what fire experts call the flashover — the point at which everything in the room simultaneously bursts into flames. It doesn’t help that many of today’s homes are built with more open floor plans and modern building materials like wallboard that can lead to faster fires, according to the Wichita Eagle.
The numbers show an alarming trend. In 1977, the first year when data was available, there were 750,000 residential fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In 2010, there were roughly half that many, thanks in large part to widespread use of smoke detectors. But the incredible speed with which home fires can spread in today’s homes represents a major step backward in fire safety.
The Hot Topic of Sprinklers
The next step in home fire safety, a spokesperson for the NASFM said, is to require fire sprinklers in new residential properties. Home builders bristle at the idea due to the high cost of installation. The national average cost to install sprinklers is $1.60 per square foot, according to the Wichita Eagle. In a 2,000-square-foot home, that comes out to about $3,200.
Another barrier is public opinion. As Yahoo! reported last year, when given the choice between granite countertops and fire sprinklers, respondents overwhelmingly chose the countertops, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
(To find out if your state requires fire sprinklers in new construction, check out the Fire Sprinkler Initiative website.)
Worse still, there are only voluntary flammability regulations for upholstered furniture. Implementing a nationwide standard would go a long way in protecting consumers from purchasing dangerously flammable furnishings, the NASFM spokesperson said.
Regardless of what state legislators decide, though, it all comes down to vigilance, says Fire Safety Institute Director Watts.
If you’ll be using a live Christmas tree this holiday season, make sure to water it regularly and keep an eye on any decorative lighting and candles. And, as always, make sure your house is equipped with working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. For a terrifying glimpse at a Christmas tree “flashover,” watch the video above.
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