Our Focus » Dangerous reduction in escape times

The dangerous reduction in escape times
Nowadays, residential fires produce much more smoke than in the past. This development is mainly caused by furnishings producing much more smoke than a few decades ago. Research has shown that the furnishings, such as sofas and mattresses, produce up to 10 times more smoke than in the early 1980s . The main reason for this is that these products contain a lot more plastic foams than they used to.

With regards to the increase in smoke development and quick smoke propagation in buildings, 37% of the fire safety experts indicate that most attention should be paid to collective housing, such as apartments. This is supported by the many fires that take place in such buildings and where smoke propagation causes by far the largest number of casualties.

Sofa on fire

What should we focus on?
Smoke obstructs vision, is toxic, displaces oxygen and produces a lot of lethal carbon monoxide. To limit the smoke development and propagation that causes a lot of casualties, there are three possible solutions to focus on. The first and most effective one is the prevention (or limitation) of smoke development. In this case, the focus should be on the most important sources of smoke development. The previously mentioned research into fatal residential fires in nine European countries suggests that most fatal residential fires occur in upholstered furniture, mattresses and bed linen. Moreover, at least 25% of all deaths and injuries in fires in the residential environment are caused by the flammability and smoke development of upholstered furniture and mattresses. The main causes of residential fire are smoking and electrical equipment, such as electric blankets and (chargers of) PCs, tablets and smartphones.

The second possible solution is to prevent, limit smoke propagation to avoid exposure to smoke. In the summer of 2019, some unique European experimental research was conducted in Oudewater, the Netherlands . In a large apartment building, multiple tests were carried out during 19 different controlled fires. The aim was to gain an insight into the effects of various installations and structural facilities to limit smoke propagation. Examples are the testing of the application of a sprinkler system, the airtight (and therefore smoke-tight) closing of the apartments and their front doors and the self-closing execution of the front doors of these apartments . The final results of these experiments are published in July 2020.

The third possible solution to limit the number of casualties due to smoke development and smoke propagation is to ensure that residents are warned quickly about the development and propagation of smoke. Although smoke detectors in homes are already mandatory in several European countries (sometimes also in existing homes), this is by no means always the case. The previously mentioned research has shown that in 9 European countries there was no smoke detector present in more than half of the fatal residential fires. This also means that in many of the fatal cases, a working smoke detector was present. Except for cases where the alarm was not noticed due to the use of medication or alcohol, most of the time, it concerned people who, due to their age or physical disability, were not able to escape safely and in time. Smoke detectors are, thus, not always the sole solution to the problem. Nonetheless, smoke detectors are certainly part of the measures that have to be taken.

How do we improve fire safety by increasing escape time?
To counteract the effects of the increase in smoke propagation, it is most effective to avoid (or limit) smoke development in the first place. This is especially important because the effectiveness of the measurements to prevent the quick propagation of smoke or to early warn people is highly dependent on the degree of self-reliance of those present. Without help, most elderly people and people with a physical disability cannot escape quickly enough or cannot escape at all. Children also often need guidance to be able to escape safely.

It has been known for years that upholstered furniture and mattresses cause the most smoke in the event of a fire. As a result, they are responsible for a large share of the number of people killed and injured in residential fires. The discussion around the use of flame retardants by manufacturers of upholstered furniture and mattresses to meet fire safety standards has become polarised in recent years. Nowadays, it can be seen also that by testing fire safety on the end product and not on the individual components of a sofa or mattress, solutions without flame retardants could also be available. In light of these developments and discussions, the EU should consider reviewing the need for a harmonised EU-standard for the flammability of upholstered furniture and mattresses.

If placed properly and working, smoke detectors are lifesavers. As such, this cheap and, in many cases, effective fire safety solution needs to have a much broader application in European homes. If residents are unable to escape on their own after a smoke detector has been triggered, other measurements are necessary. Domestic sprinklers, which are now available in several simple forms and designs, are then a logical alternative or addition.

Research has shown that smoking, in combination with the flammability of upholstered furniture and mattresses, is still the number one cause for fatal fires in the residential environment . And this remains true even though the so-called Lower Ignition Propensity (LIP) cigarette was introduced in the EU in 2011. A cigarette that ought to self-extinguish and be less fire-prone. Research has shown that there are a considerable number of disadvantages to the testing methods of these cigarettes. As such, these methods need to be urgently evaluated to improve the fire-safe functioning of these cigarettes.