Two incidents in New York earlier this year spotlight the not new but still severe problem of exposed halogen bulbs in torchère lamps. In Manhattan, fire ripped through a residential high-rise, assisted by strong winds after the windows failed from the fire, resulting in a difficult firefight in which firefighters were injured. In Geneva, New York, a fire in a college dormitory ultimately resulted in the death of a firefighter who was stretching a line to the second floor; he suffered a massive heart attack. Both fires originated with halogen lamps and were caused by the hot bulbs` contacting ordinary room combustibles.

This is just the tip of the iceberg–these lamps are pretty but proven fire starters. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which issued a product warning a year ago and whose investigative report is soon forthcoming, says that torchère lamps have been responsible for 189 fires and 11 deaths since 1992. That may seem like a drop in the national fire loss pond–if, indeed, it`s accurate–but consider that (1) halogen bulbs reach temperatures of close to 1,0007F; (2) at that temperature it would not take long for your living room drapes to ignite while you`re fast asleep on the sofa; and (3) the CPSC reports there are between 35 and 40 million unmodified (that is to say, potentially dangerous) torchère lamps in our homes and places of business.

Underwriters Laboratories, which issued third-party test certification to many if not most of the torchère lamps on the market, has moved quickly in the past 18 months to attempt to rectify what could be construed as a big mistake, though UL spokespersons were quick to correct me on my negative impression. It has “partnered” with consumer groups and manufacturers to communicate publicly the lamp`s associated fire hazard. It now requires that the manufacturer place a new warning label in one of two specified locations on the lamp. And since February it has required among its battery of fire safety test criteria the “cheesecloth drape test,” which places a double layer of cheesecloth over the top of the lamp for seven hours; if the cloth ignites or is charred, the lamp will not pass and will not be issued the UL logo. UL reports that manufacturers have been meeting the new test criterion by incorporating a metal grid over the lamp to keep combustibles from contacting the bulb, and others have added a thermal cutoff switch to the lamp.

“When we receive information, we take action,” said a UL spokesperson. That`s admirable, but in this case the action comes 40 million torchère lamps too late.

Underwriters Laboratories is large and busy. It conducts 75,000 product investigations and creates test standards for 17,000 different products each year. It employs 4,000 people and operates five lab centers. The UL certification process is, in the words of its spokespersons, “open.” For its test standards, including that of the torchère lamp, the organization solicits input from a variety of sources–manufacturers, consumer groups, safety professionals, insurance companies, inspection authorities, fire service entities, and so forth–before its engineers and standards writers finalize the testing criteria.

When torchère lamps first came out in the 1980s, it`s likely nobody got worked up over just another routine lamp standard–after all, UL had 80 years of experience standardizing lamp tests–and the “partnership” groups probably weren`t breaking down doors to get in on it. Even so, though I`m not a rocket scientist or even an engineer, it`s hard to comprehend that no one wondered, “Hmmm U 1,0007F out of an open bowl on a tippy six-foot-tall stick on a cushy rug next to combustible household materials .U” I`ve got kids. Lamps tip over. Curtains get flung up into the air and caught on high objects. I`ve seen items of clothing scattered around a room in the darndest places. Hey, stuff happens.

Perhaps that no one had the common sense to realize what now seems to be an obvious hazard can be blamed on the “we`ve always done it that way” syndrome that grips every organization from time to time.

But UL maintains no mistakes were made, so no organizational correction was required, a spokesperson said. In its defense, UL acted swiftly and correctly when in late 1995 it recognized the problem, as it does with hundreds of standards every year based on a continuous influx of product information. It contends it had no sufficient body of information prior to that time to warrant action–the lamps had been on the market for years before there was any indication of a problem.

So now there are many millions of these “torch lamps” in circulation. Most likely they will not become our most onerous fire safety vexation, but they`re out there, adding to the fire problem and the list of potential fire causes that inevitably kill and injure firefighters and civilians.

For now, fire departments should not assume that consumer bulletins and warnings are enough. Fire departments must take additional steps to educate their citizens to create more firesafe home and work environments, which include how to live smartly and safely with torch lamps and other potential fire hazards.

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