House Fires: How much time you have to escape

JOHNS ISLAND, SC (WCSC) - A structure catches fire almost every minute in the U.S. About seven of those fires take at least one life. The difference between life and death in these emergency situations could what's inside your house.

Scorching flames and thick, black smoke become a deadly combination in seconds, not minutes.

"The time they really have for escape has minimized dramatically," St. Johns Fire Chief Colleen Walz said.

For those who survive a house fire, the memories stay fresh long after the smoke has cleared.

"It's one of those moments in time that are hard to forget," Joe Gillespie said.

Joe and his wife Emily have no trouble recalling the afternoon in October 2006 when they realized something wasn't right. First, they smelled smoke in the house. A closer look revealed even more.

"The attic fan we have in the home has leveler blinds that open into the attic," Gillespie said. "I opened it and saw orange."

An electrical fire was burning in the attic of their Park Circle home.

"As soon as we knew it was fire, Wrangler (their dog) and I went running out the door on the phone with the fire department," Emily said.

The couple and their pets made it out fine, but the house was uninhabitable for months. The scary moment is still with them more than ten years later. Both agree the number one priority should always be getting out of the house as fast as possible.

A 2012 report from the safety consulting company Underwriters Laboratories says the time you have to escape a fire has dropped from about 15 minutes 50 years ago to about three minutes now. One of the big reasons may be the furniture in your house. Before the 1970s, most couches were made of natural fibers like wood and cotton. Today, houses are filled with furniture made from synthetic materials.
"In our industry, we call the products frozen gasoline," Walz said. "Basically they are all plastics and petroleum-based."

U.L. used fire experiments to compare a modern room and furniture with a legacy room, filled with furniture made in the 1950s and 60s. The fire in the modern room spread quickly and the room reached a flashover point about three and half minutes later. The legacy room took almost thirty minutes to reach the same point.

The St. Johns Fire District assisted in a demonstration to test the UL report findings. An eight by eight-foot room was filled with a modern sofa, curtains, and an end table. Battalion Chief Ryan Kunitzer lit the back of the sofa on fire and within a few seconds, the smoke alarm sounded. Flames quickly burned through the sofa and up the curtains and drywall in the room. By the one minute mark, the temperature in the room reached a thousand degrees. Toxic, black smoke poured out of the room as the flames melted the couch. Firefighters extinguished the flames after two minutes, just before reaching the flashover point.

"It didn't take much for that smoke alarm to go off and that's what's important," Kunitzer said. "We want to get out while the fire is small."

Kunitzer said the smoke alarm should be your first safety warning but encourages everyone to go a step further. He says a sprinkler system offers another level of safety protection.

In another experiment, firefighters put modern furniture in a room with a sprinkler overhead. The smoke alarm sounded as the smoke and temperature started to climb. A few seconds later the sprinkler opened up and water quickly doused the flames. In less than a minute, the flames were out and the fire damage was minimal.

"The goal of a sprinkler system is to knock a fire down to give you time to get out," Kunitzer said. "If you're in a bedroom down the hallway, it just gave you time to get out of your house safely."

Firefighters and the U.L. report are not encouraging people to go out and buy old furniture. Instead, they encourage everyone to have working smoke alarms, check the batteries frequently and have an escape plan for the family.

The American Red Cross has a template to help create evacuation plans for the home. You can find it here.

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