Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on March 2, 2020.

High Consequence 

The extreme combustibility of modern furniture is one more reason to embrace home fire sprinklers 
When it comes to furniture, the old adage “they don’t make them like they used to” is more than a cliché—it’s become a significant problem for fire safety.

In October, the NFPA research report “Home Structure Fires” was released and included some startling statistics. Although reported home fires and home fire deaths in recent years are roughly half those in 1980, the chances of dying in a reported home fire have remained about the same. In 2018, the number of deaths per 1,000 home fires in the United States was 7.5, compared to 7.1 in 1980.

A leading reason for this concerning statistic is the highly combustible materials used in most modern furniture. I vividly remember the couch my grandmother had in her home when I was young—a beige floral cotton print with thick cushions. The worn spots revealed a dense fibrous filling and the legs were heavy wooden claw feet with metal bottoms. It was a solid piece of furniture that lasted decades. Fire tests have shown that legacy furniture like my grandmother’s couch, which was made with more natural materials, burns more slowly and predictably than furniture made today. Those pieces, constructed largely of synthetic foam and particle board, burn much hotter and faster and can quickly ignite anything near them, giving occupants much less time to escape.

As a consequence, today’s death rate in home fires where upholstered furniture, mattresses, or bedding was the first item to ignite has doubled since the early 1980s, according to the NFPA report. In the study period from 2013 to 2017, there was an annual average of 88 deaths per 1,000 reported fires when upholstered furniture was the first thing to catch fire, compared to 42 deaths per 1,000 fires from 1980 to 1984. When a home fire began with the ignition of a mattress or bedding, the average annual death rate per 1,000 fires was 38 during 2013 to 2017, compared to 15 during 1980 to 1984.

These types of fires are characterized as low-frequency, high-consequence events. Upholstered furniture fires comprised 1 percent of total home fires between 2013 and 2017, but accounted for 17 percent of all fire deaths. On average, one in every 11 upholstered furniture fires resulted in a death, the NFPA report found. These are statistics that should give us all chills.

There have been many attempts over the years to try to make modern combustible furniture less likely to burn. This includes voluntary efforts as well as regulations on furniture and mattress composition. It also includes a successful effort led by NFPA for national legislation mandating fire-safe cigarettes, which aimed to reduce the fire risks associated with this common furniture ignition source. But clearly, industries and government must continue to look at today’s fire problem and seek further solutions. There is more that can be done.

While targeting the materials and what ignites them is part of the strategy, we shouldn’t overlook a simple and more widespread solution to these and other types of fires: home fire sprinklers. Home fire sprinklers can reduce loss in most scenarios, regardless of how the fire begins or what is burning. Sprinklers have proven effective in controlling the fire 97 percent of time, and the risk of dying in a reported home fire is 85 percent lower if sprinklers are present. Those facts are clear and well established. And yet, sprinklers are found in only a small percentage of home structures today. For us to see any reduction in these death rates, lawmakers and others must demand requirements to install sprinklers in all new homes.

Many things are different in homes today than in my grandmother’s era. We need to ensure that the presence of home fire sprinklers is among them. 

Lorraine Carli is vice president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler