Minutes to spare: The new fire safety reality - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

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Minutes to spare: The new fire safety reality

(Source: WAFF) (Source: WAFF)
(WAFF) -

Firefighters were called out to half-a-million structure fires in 2014. Sadly, nearly 3,000 people died in those fires. However, there is plenty to learn from those who did survive. You may be surprised to learn your survival has less to do with your reaction, and more to do with your house. 

A family of five is fortunate to be alive after their house went up in flames on Hunter Brown Road in Harvest. Neighbor Mark Hansen told us it didn't take long for the fire to spread and destroy the home. 

"When I came out, after I heard the sirens, maybe a couple of minutes later after I heard 'em, that house was totally engulfed in flames, totally in flames!" said Lt. Stacy Rose.

Rose has been a firefighter in Decatur for 20 years. He's seen a dangerous trend develop: homeowners have less time than ever before to escape a burning home. 

"Basically, what we tell people, the second your fire alarm goes off, get out of the house immediately.  Don't try to go back in. Don't try to grab that photo album. Don't try to grab the sentimental items," he said.

America's obsession with everything new is creating greater problems for homeowners and firefighters. 

"All of the synthetics makes it burn hotter and faster. It causes a little more problems when it comes time to get out of the house when there is a fire.  And, it causes a little more problems with firefighting because of the dense, black smoke, the hotter temperatures and the faster burn rate we have with modern combustibles," said Rose.

We wanted to see for ourselves if older furnishings burn at a slower rate since they're built with more natural materials like wood and cotton. So, we bought two used couches, loaded them on a work truck and drove them to the Decatur Fire Department's training center. The couches were both built with man-made materials like polyurethane foam and resin treated polyester fibers. Once Lt. Rose lit them on fire, he pointed out that materials make all the difference in how quickly a fire burns. 

"When you think about how fast it's burning, it's doubling in size every few seconds," he said.

In fact, it only took 150 seconds for the first couch to be fully consumed in flames. Lt. Rose said, when synthetic products catch on fire, they're known to spew out toxic fumes and create dangerous heat. 

"We have modern combustibles that are all burning at the same time. So, your heat is going to get around 1300-1400 hundred degrees, sometimes a little hotter."

UL has put together extensive research on how building spaces, materials and furnishings affect fires. Researchers compared three modern rooms with three rooms that featured furnishings from 50 years ago. The results were sobering. The modern rooms burned eight times faster!

UL Consumer Safety Director John Drengenberg revealed, 40 years ago, Americans had an average of 17 minutes to escape a home fire. Now, they only have three minutes. There are a variety of reasons why this safety window is closing. Drengenberg says, one of the factors is homeowners' love for open floor plans.

"If there's a fire in the kitchen, it could automatically spread to the family room. Or, if it's a larger home, there might be a balcony upstairs where the bedrooms are. A fire could get up into the bedrooms."

Drengenberg also blames modern building materials like engineered lumber, which he says, is used in 60 percent of new homes. 

"There are some that are engineered lumber, for example, and that means wood chips and saw dust held together by glue. And, that does burn faster than regular wood."

Decatur firefighters say, if the home's frame is burning faster, they have less time to rescue someone before the house collapses. 

Yet, the Huntsville Madison County Builders Association takes issue with those findings. President TJ Meers said, new homes have never been safer. Meers said, engineered lumber is strong, codes for electrical wiring are very strict, windows are larger and smoke alarms are mandated throughout the home. 

"Now, it's required that you have one smoke detector in every bedroom and outside every bedroom.  And, they have to be hard-wired with a battery backup. If a fire starts on one side of the house, one goes off, they all go off," Meers said.

Researchers at UL aren't telling people not to buy new furniture or new homes. Instead, the message is to make sure you have working smoke detectors in your home.

Firefighters couldn't agree more. Seventy percent of fire-related deaths happen in homes that don't have detectors, or they aren't working. 

The Decatur Fire Department said it provides smoke detectors to anyone who needs them. Other stations tell me, they offer them on a case-by-case basis. Just call, or stop by the fire station nearest you.

The Madison Fire Department and many others in the Tennessee Valley offer safety tips to help keep you and your family safe. 

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