Image courtesy of dvs via Flickr
Thirty years ago, a person would have almost 20 minutes to get out of a burning home safely. Today, that time is down to just three or four minutes.
This change is due heavily to the increased use of flammable synthetic materials in homes today, but is also in large part due to differences in the way homes are now constructed. A recent series of studies compared modern homes with legacy homes, and found that the combination of certain factors, detailed below, has made for fast-burning homes.
Many homes built now are larger, in area and in number of stories, than those built in earlier decades. A larger home means the potential for a larger fire, and more available air to grow and feed that fire. Increasing the number of stories has resulted in the potential for the buildup of a layer of smoke above the fire, which allows the fire to grow for a longer time.
Open floor plans:
Modern homes are more open on the inside, which helps fire and smoke spread more rapidly.
Tall ceilings and two-story foyers provide the fire with more oxygen, which helps it continue to grow. Removing walls and doors to make a home more open gives the fire a larger volume of space, making it difficult to contain.
Homes today are filled almost entirely with synthetic materials, like plastics and textiles, which can be flammable and combustible. Whereas cotton was once used in the padding of furniture, polyurethane foam has replaced it, and can burn quickly.
Most homes are now built using gypsum board in the linings of the wall, as opposed to plaster and lath which was common in the U.S. until the 1950s. As a room gets hot, the studies found that gypsum board shrinks, opening up gaps near the seams which creates a path for the fire.
With homes today burning eight times faster than they used to, it has become more difficult for people to get out safely, and for firefighters to get in upon arrival.
In a legacy home, a home from an earlier generation, a fire-caused collapse would likely begin 40 minutes after the arrival of firefighters; today it’s estimated that firefighters have just 90 seconds after arrival before a collapse becomes possible.
Emergency responders now face a much shorter reaction time upon arrival, which calls for reevaluations in firefighting tactics as future fires become more dangerous.
Despite the fact that modern homes burn faster, data from the US Fire Administration reveals that the risk of dying in a fire in the United States has actually dropped in the last 10 years.