Groundbreaking study of smoke characterization could change the face of fire safety

Published on April 24, 2007

April 24, 2007— The Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) announced the completion of a study that enhances the fire safety community’s understanding of modern fire hazards and may eventually lead to changes in how people are kept safer from fire. Download the report for free(PDF, 3 MB)

The $700,000 joint study systematically investigated the characteristics of smoke and how materials used in modern residential settings have changed the way fires behave in homes. The year-long studied 27 synthetic and natural materials and various combinations of materials now more commonly found in homes. 

Until recently, these different smoke characteristics couldn’t be studied in such detail. In developing the Smoke Characterization Project, UL invested more than $500,000 to conduct the study and to secure the latest scientific measurement equipment. With this advanced analytical ability, UL’s fire science experts were able to investigate the chemical and physical properties of smoke at a new level of sophistication.

“This review is the first of its kind to study such a wide range of materials now found in homes,” said Kathleen Almand, executive director of FPRF. “What we are learning will enable public safety officials to further develop education and training programs regarding the use of smoke alarms in residential structures and provide valuable data to fire science engineers as they strive to develop new smoke detection technologies.”

“The initial results of this project reflect that smoke can no longer be characterized just by color or density, but that smoke is highly complex and chemically different based on each unique fire event,” said John Drengenberg, UL’s manager of Consumer Affairs. “From the sheer amount of data we’ve gathered, we believe the results will change the way the fire community perceives smoke produced in home fires, which could further reduce the risk of injury or loss of life due to fires.”

Drengenberg said the study will also help material scientists better understand how materials decompose in residential fires and may lead to the development of safer materials in the home.

The Smoke Characterization Project followed a 2004 study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that indicated fires in modern homes smolder longer, then burn hotter and faster than what was typical when smoke alarms were first introduced.

The NIST study also concluded that because fires could grow more rapidly, the time needed to escape some types of fires has been reduced from approximately 17 minutes to as little as three minutes in certain situations.

“With this Smoke Characterization Project, UL and FPRF are helping move fire science to a whole new level,” said Chief Jim Harmes, president, International Association of Fire Chiefs. “Home furnishings and products constructed from new synthetic materials and formulations are growing in popularity. This project has provided the data and measurement techniques needed to more fully assess a burning material's impact on detection.”

Fire officials agree that smoke alarms play a vital role in reducing deaths and injuries from fires—an almost 50 percent decrease in fire deaths has been attributed to smoke alarms since the mid-1970s.

Currently, about 95 percent of U.S.homes are estimated to have at least one smoke alarm, employing either photoelectric sensors, which are generally more effective for detecting smoldering fires, or ionization sensors, which are more sensitive to open flames. Smoke alarm manufacturers now make alarms that combine both technologies. Drengenberg emphasized that, regardless of the technology used, a properly installed smoke alarm system remains one of the most effective ways to protect families from the risk of residential fires.

“Underwriters Laboratories and FPRF recommend residential homes have both smoke alarm technologies installed where appropriate,” he said. “It is generally recommended that every residence have a smoke alarms outside every sleeping area, and at least one on every floor.”

Almand also suggested that owners of multi-level homes should consider interconnected smoke alarms with wired or wireless technology to provide simultaneous response in case of a fire, regardless of where the fire begins.

According to the most recent annual statistics from the National Fire Protection Association, 396,000 residential structure fires were reported, with 3,055 civilian fatalities and 13,825 civilian injuries.  Residential structure fires caused an estimated $6.9 billion in direct property damage that year.

About Underwriters Laboratories
Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is an independent, not-for-profit product safety certification organization that has been testing products and writing Standards for Safety for over a century. UL evaluates more than 19,000 types of products, components, materials and systems annually with 21 billion UL Marks appearing on 71,000 manufacturers’ products each year. UL’s worldwide family of companies and network of service providers includes 66 laboratory, testing and certification facilities serving customers in 104 countries.

About Fire Protection Research Foundation
The Fire Protection Research Foundation plans, manages and communicates consortium-funded research on a broad range of fire safety issues in collaboration with scientists and laboratories around the world. The Foundation is an affiliate of National Fire Protection Association.

Contact:Lorraine Carli, NFPA/FPRF, Vice President – Communications, +1-617-984-7275                                                                  

Joe Hirschmugl, Underwriters Laboratories, Global Media Relations Supervisor, +1-847-830-1404

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