Ways to Escape a Deadly House Fire in an Era of Faster Flames

Ways to greatly enhance survival in a house fire aren't difficult to implement in your home. Experts gave NBC10 an exclusive look inside a simulated house fire to highlight pitfalls and prevention.

Polyurethane furniture.  Misplaced smoke detectors. Even open doors.

The causes and contributing factors for many of the deadly house fires in America are hiding in plain sight, but once noticed, they are easily remedied and will let you sleep better — and safer — at night. 

Fire experts simulated a house fire for NBC10 last month to walk through how flames can quickly spread from room-to-room and go unnoticed before it's too late. That is, unless you and your family put in place some escape plans and the right alert system.

The simulation, which was overseen by officials with national safety consultant, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and the Philadelphia Fire Department, helped expose a few simple steps to enhance the chances of survival. 

Close Your Doors at Bedtime

After one portion of the simulation, a tour of one section of the house showed an incredible occurrence: a charred living room and in an adjacent bedroom, little perceivable damage.

What prevented the flames from spreading? A closed door. It's that simple, Alt said.

NBC10 reporter Mitch Blacher, left, and a fire expert with Underwriters Laboratories examine the damage from a simulated house fire.

"This part of the door did burn away, but what’s amazing and we want people to see this, on the backside of this door this is what it looks like," he said.

The safety is in the simplicity, and it's become a national campaign called "Close Before You Doze." 

Know Your Furniture

“What’s gone in this room is what is synthetic," UL's Mike Alt said as he toured the burned out living room following the fire simulation. "The curtains, gone. Nothing left. Couch cushions, gone, barely anything left.”

Between 2010 and 2014, house fires that began on upholstered furniture accounted for 2 percent of all fires, yet they accounted for 18 percent of fire deaths.

Inside the simulation, a Philadelphia fire official pointed to a melted couch.

"There's probably nothing in that couch natural. It's all plastics and it burns hot and fast," Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said.

The charred metal frame is all that remains of a couch following a simulated house fire.

Modern upholstered furniture is often made with a plastics-based material called polyurethane, and was at the root of 5,630 home structure fires each year. The fires were responsible for annual averages of 440 civilian fire deaths and 700 casualties during that five-year period. Industry experts say the rise in popularity of polyurethane-based furniture is rooted in economics: the material is cheaper than natural resources pre-dominant in the 20th century, and has driven down the cost of home furnishings, Alt said.

At the same time, experts say the time you have to safely escape a home on fire also has fallen — from 17 minutes three decades ago to just three minutes now.

Still, the American Home Furnishings Alliance, an industry lobbyist, said in a statement that improvements to the polyurethane foam used in furniture has been found "to help reduce the chance of ignition from a smoldering source." The group did not provide support for that claim.

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But minutes matter in any fire, and the experts said properly placed fire alarms combined a well-rehearsed escape plan are the most important factors in escaping the flames.

Put Thought Into Smoke Detector Placement

Simply slapping smoke detectors on walls throughout the house is not enough. Their placement, and quantity, is essential to their success.

They should be in every room, particularly in bedrooms, the experts said. The best location in a room is directly above a doorway because as smoke enters, it will initially seep through the top of the entrance and up toward the ceiling.

Smoke seeps through a closed door in a simulated house fire.

"This part of the door did burn away, but what’s amazing and we want people to see this," Alt said. "On the backside of this door, this is what it looks like."

Combine these tips with the escape plan, and you'll sleep much safer at night. Ask Odeba Robinson, a Philadelphia mother, who just recently enacted a safety plan for her family with the help of the American Red Cross.

She realized a big problem for both her and her son. Escaping from each of their bedroom windows isn't possible without assistance.

“I didn’t think about it that it would be in the way and I’d have a problem getting out the window until you brought it up today," Robinson said.

But now that they know, the mother and son have a plan thanks to the Red Cross.

"What we recommend in those situations is to take a towel and putting it under the door to prevent any smoke from coming into the room and then opening the window and yelling and waving something out the window," said Mike Kiley-Zufelt of the Red Cross.

Climbing out of your window isn’t always necessary when a fire breaks out. Knowing the best way out of every room will let you sleep easier at night. Part Two of a series at escaping fires in an era of faster flames.
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