Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on July 1, 2016.

Behind Closed Doors

Closing bedroom doors may actually open the door to better fire safety

BY LORRAINE CARLI

When I was a kid, my siblings always knew when I woke up because I had a wooden sign hanging from my bedroom doorknob that banged against the door when it opened. It sounded each morning because, in our house, we all slept with our doors shut. I’m still not sure if my parents were fire safety conscious or it was just a coincidence.

For many years, NFPA and others have acknowledged that closing a door can slow the spread of smoke, heat, and fire, with messaging stressing the importance of a closed door if you are not able to escape. But our messaging stopped short of recommending closing bedroom doors while sleeping. In the past, NFPA has maintained only that if you sleep with the bedroom door closed, smoke alarms should be installed inside and outside the bedroom, and for the best protection all smoke alarms should be interconnected.

I hadn’t given much thought to this approach, or whether NFPA and others should place greater emphasis on sleeping with a closed bedroom door, until the issue was featured in a media story in Texas a few months ago. The piece highlighted research from Underwriters Laboratories that demonstrated what is becoming common knowledge in fire safety—today’s houses, because of lightweight construction, open floor plans, and modern furnishings, burn much more quickly than in the past. Residents may now have as little as two minutes to escape a home fire, compared to seven to eight minutes years ago, according to estimates from various fire safety organizations.

In light of this information, should NFPA and other groups change the messaging on sleeping with closed bedroom doors?

NFPA decided to pose the question to the Educational Messages Advisory Committee (EMAC), a group of national, state, and local fire and life safety experts tasked with developing public messaging on key fire issues. When the EMAC convened at NFPA in March, there was a lot of discussion on closed bedroom doors. There were also some unanswered questions: What if the fire starts in the bedroom where the door is shut? Does that increase the risk of dying? Will a closed door delay early warning from a smoke alarm located outside the sleeping room?

At the end of the discussion, the EMAC decided it was prudent to modify its messaging regarding sleeping with a door closed. The updated message says, “A closed door may slow the spread of smoke, heat, and fire. Install smoke alarms in every sleeping room and outside each separate sleeping area. For the best protection, make sure all smoke alarms are interconnected.” The committee also recommended additional research on the unanswered questions and will consider any new information. To that end, the Fire Protection Research Foundation has applied for grant funding this year to conduct research that will attempt to quantify the pros and cons of sleeping with the bedroom door closed.

I believe that the EMAC’s messaging change strengthens the emphasis on shutting bedroom doors at bedtime, but the primary message was and remains focused on making sure residents have working smoke alarms in their homes. According to NFPA statistics, the majority of fire deaths happen in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms. NFPA continues to advocate strongly for home fire sprinkler requirements in all new one- and two-family homes to reduce the fire problem.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice president of outreach and advocacy for NFPA. Top Photograph: Shutterstock