Time Out -- Out of Time: Flashover and Residential Sprinklers

By Glenn A. Gaines
Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator

Recently there has been much discussion in regard to response times of fire and EMS field assets, and rightly so. Rapid intervention is something fire and EMS do that is unique in government service. As a response enterprise we look to professional standards, Federal Regulations and current and planned growth patterns to determine what type of response resources are needed and how they will be deployed. Up to this point in time, when calculating a acceptable response time for EMS intervention we have used the period of time when the lack of oxygen can lead to brain damage (six minutes) and the time to flashover and its relationship with the temperature curve (five minutes to flashover). 

But time out. Do these assumptions still hold true? My sources tell me that when humans are deprived of oxygen for six minutes or more we can expect brain damage to occur. This standard and condition remains valid. However, science and actual field experience clearly demonstrate that the five minute to flashover in residential buildings, where nearly eighty-five (85) percent of Americans die from fires, is no longer valid. In fact, if we are asleep upstairs in our bedroom and have working smoke alarms on all levels of our home (and that clearly is not the case in all residences), when a fire starts on the main level of the residence we have about three minutes to escape if we are to have a chance of survival.  Folks, this was just not the case ten years ago. But most of the legacy furnishings are long gone and have been replaced by synthetic laden materials that are tantamount to solidified gasoline. You can see this for yourself by viewing the videos available on line at the following URLs:

The increased combustibility of home furnishings and decorative finishes create a situation where the likelihood that firefighters will be able to rescue you is remote if you are asleep at the time of the fire. We are routinely seeing flashover in as little as three and one-half minutes creating a condition where we know humans cannot survive. We have neither the financial or human resources to strategically place fire stations within three and one half minutes of every citizen. I am not proposing to throw out the standard five minute response time. The fact is that in order to contain today's fires to the unit, townhouse, or single-family detached structure, the five-minute response time is still valid.  But if we are to provide firefighters or EMS responders with an opportunity to save the lives of critically injured or ill patients, then the five minute response time goal may not be enough.

Look, we have 78 million baby boomers each with a life expectancy of somewhere around 85 years of age. They are getting more frail, less nimble and increasingly at risk, especially when we are seeing these extraordinary fire growth patterns.

I believe these are ominous conditions that demand our immediate action. So what should we be talking about? What is the answer? I believe we already know the answer. Residential sprinklers.  Residential sprinklers save lives and stop fire spread before it reaches killer magnitude. There is ample empirical evidence that they protect lives and property. We have seen it in Scottsdale, AZ and in Prince Georges County, MD., where, contrary to opponents, residential sprinkler ordinances have not driven up building costs or deterred housing development. Why have we not been able to convince political leaders to adopt the requirement for residential sprinklers? If we take an objective view at the reasons for this lack of movement toward a safe and effective solution, it cannot be anything other than the almighty dollar and political influence.

It is and has been the position of builders and developers that they will experience a loss of profit if residential sprinklers are required. But that hasn't been the case in jurisdictions where sprinkler legislation is in place. It is suggested that residential sprinklers will leak. They do not. They leak no more often than any other piece of pipe in your home. Another argument is that sprinklers are a huge draw on the water system. They are not. They use about nine and a half gallons per minute per sprinkler head. Over ninety percent of residential fires are extinguished with two or fewer sprinklers heads.

The United States Fire Administration (USFA), the fire organizations, and every one of the more than 1.3 million firefighters, must continue the relentless battle to present the facts and continue the fight for residential sprinkler requirements.

The other part of this conundrum is how do we find a way to reduce the combustibility of interior furnishings? They have been successful in Great Britain; we can be successful here. We have done it with mattresses with huge success. The USFA, the National Institute of Standards and Testing, the home furnishing industry and others committed to fire safety have begun to look for low cost, high return solutions for tackling this problem. Let's hope that firefighter engagement, political courage and technical scientific solutions bear fruit and forestall what I see as a true potential national disaster on the horizon.

For now, the message for citizens who live in residences without residential sprinklers is to install and maintain working smoke alarms; prepare and practice a fire escape plan; and, if awakened by a smoke alarm, get out, get out fast and do not reenter. Folks you have about three (3) minutes.

 

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