Having a working smoke alarm, responding right away when it sounds, and having and practicing a plan to get out quickly are more crucial today than ever.
Modern homes are more susceptible to rapid fire spread, according to a study* by UL, a global safety certification company. The average U.S. home size has increased 56% since 1980, and more homes have two stories. The larger the home, the more air is available to sustain and grow a fire. Newer homes are also more likely to incorporate open floor plans, taller ceilings, great rooms and two-story foyers, which can contribute to rapid smoke and fire spread.
Modern building materials and furnishings are also more likely to include faster-burning synthetic materials and/or combustible materials.
UL conducted a number of fire experiments involving rooms made with either modern or “legacy” materials (contents that might have been found in a mid-20th century house), recording the time it took for “flashover” (a fire spreading very rapidly across a gap because of intense heat) to occur. These experiments found that while flashover took 29 minutes or more in legacy rooms, in modern rooms it took less than 5 minutes. In addition, modern windows and doors fail more rapidly than their legacy counterparts, which can allow more air in to fuel the fire.
Average fire department time to residential fires from 2004 to 2009 was approximately 6.4 minutes according to the National Fire Incident Reporting System.
A working smoke alarm can reduce your risk of dying in a fire by 50%–if it is working, you respond to it immediately, and you can get out quickly, even in darkness. Here’s how to keep yourself and your family safer:
- Test your smoke alarms, ideally monthly, even if they have long-life batteries or are hard-wired.
- Plan ahead, and know how everyone in your home will get out, especially from bedrooms.
- Keep bedroom doors closed; whether modern or legacy they provide a barrier against smoke and heat. Feel the door with the back of your hand. If it’s hot, put down a towel or other material to keep out smoke, and go to a window to exit or signal to firefighters.
- If the alarm sounds, don’t waste time looking for the source—get out, then call 9-1-1.
*Kerber, S. Analysis of Changing Residential Fire Dynamics, UL, 2012.