Fast + Faster
The pace of technological change and what it means for the nature of home fires
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2013
Fire safety professionals are constantly working to find solutions to the challenges posed by new technologies. Historically, we have been very successful at meeting those challenges; witness the steady reductions in fire deaths, injuries, and property loss that have occurred over the past 50 years due, in part, to the widespread incorporation of sprinklers and smoke alarms in homes, and the inclusion of fire safety features in building codes and standards.
While I remain convinced of our ongoing ability to address new fire safety challenges, I am concerned that the pace of change in technology is making it harder for us to change fire protection so that it keeps up with emerging hazards.
That was one of my takeaways from a recent event, sponsored by the United States Fire Administration (USFA), on the changing nature of home fires. I was among the researchers and other stakeholders in home fire safety who met in December at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute to explore how new building construction methods, as well as building contents and materials, affect the way fires grow and develop in today’s homes.
The goal of the event was to share our growing understanding of these effects, gained through a new body of research funded by the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies, and to consider how we should respond.
Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Underwriters Laboratories, and other organizations presented the technical substantiation for what the fire service faces when responding to today’s home fires, including shorter times to flashover and the wind-driven fire effects resulting from modern building contents and configurations. Presenters also addressed changes in materials used for siding and roofing, a process driven by sustainable construction goals, that are also creating new hazards in exterior fire attack. Research was also presented showing how modern personal protective clothing and equipment is not fully in step with firefighters’ changing environments and tactics.
The program also addressed modern furniture flammability. While this is not a new issue, it is receiving renewed attention as research reinforces the significant contribution of upholstered furniture to the home fire problem, and as researchers work to develop new and environmentally safer methods to lower that contribution. This is a complex regulatory and technical issue, but progress is being made in the development of test methods and techniques to address it. My impression from the discussion at the workshop is that there is a sense of optimism that solutions can be found for this problem, but that focus and resources need to be applied to get us to the finish line.
A central question was this: How we can act as a community to address the risks presented by modern homes? The USFA challenged all the organizations represented to consider what they might do. The result was an action plan that includes a nationally coordinated activity to implement change in firefighting tactics; technology advancements in, and increased use of, home fire safety measures such as sprinklers and working smoke alarms; and continued research to identify and mitigate the effects of the next generation of changes to home construction and contents.
Much of the Foundation’s research program already focuses on how new technology affects fire hazards and needed changes to NFPA codes and standards in areas such as firefighting tactics and sprinkler and smoke alarm technology. Perhaps this initiative will accelerate the implementation of that work into the home fire safety arena. It seems the pace of change demands it.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.