According to the Red Cross, house fires are the single largest disaster threat for Americans across the country. House fires are responsible for more than $7 billion of property damage annually. Even more alarming, there are approximately seven fatalities and 36 injuries every day as a direct result of house fires.
Compounding this issue is the material and design of modern homes. A 1970s study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found that residents in a standard American home had an escape window of approximately 17 minutes after a fire started. A similar study conducted by NIST in 2004 found that the escape window had dropped to a mere 3 minutes.
Why the drastic drop in escape window?
NIST concluded that the primary reason why residents have less time to escape modern house fires is that the synthetic materials used to make drapes, carpeting, pillow stuffing, etc. burns more easily and with more intensity. Additionally, modern window fixtures no longer use puttied edges. This helps make modern windows more energy efficient, but it also gives modern windows less room to expand when exposed to the high heat of a house fire. This leads to modern windows cracking much sooner, and the cracks allow in outside oxygen which feeds the fire.
The materials used in constructing modern homes are also more flammable. Lightweight engineered beams are often used in modern homes to replace more expensive heavy wooden beams. In studies conducted by Underwriter Laboratories and the National Research Council of Canada and published in the National Fire Protection Association Journal, traditional lumber held up under fire conditions for 18 minutes while engineered beams held up for only six minutes.
Finally, open floor plans help accelerate the speed at which a fire can spread through a house. Fewer walls may provide excellent sight lines across your home, but it also permits fire to rapidly spread.
What can you do?
Despite the additional fire risks that newer homes pose, it is unlikely that there will be major design changes in the near future. While house fires are certainly dangerous, the risk of fire to an individual house is so low and the benefits of modern design so high that current building trends are likely to continue. One recommended solution to give residents more time to escape house fires is to require sprinklers in residential homes. While sprinklers are a promising long term solution, they do not address the risk to millions of Americans living in sprinkler-free modern homes. Instead, the Red Cross suggests taking traditional fire safety precautions, primarily double checking smoke alarms and instituting fire drills in the home.
Even though the escape window in newer homes is substantially less than in older homes, three minutes should still be plenty of time for more people to get out of their home safely if a fire occurs. But in order to get out in time, people need to be alerted to the fact that a fire is present. Smoke alarms are still the easiest, most effective way of alerting residents to a fire danger, but in order to be effective smoke alarms must be properly installed and maintained. The Red Cross recommends installing fire alarms on every level of the house and in every sleeping area. Check them once a month to ensure functionality and change batteries as necessary.
A second important step is to practice fire drills in the home. Begin by creating a fire escape plan from each room in the house. Always try to have at least two exits for each room in case one path becomes blocked. Establish a meeting place where everyone should go after they are safely out of the house. Once you’ve created a plan, practice it as if it were a real fire. In a real fire, smoke will begin filling up rooms starting at the top, so practice low crawling and checking door handles to feel if there might be fire behind a door. Time yourself using different exits from each room, and continue practicing until your escape time from any given room is under two minutes.