Plastic fillings in sofas and mattresses burn much faster than older fillings like cotton, and this changes how firefighters should fight fires:
Plastics, like the polyurethane foam used as filling in furniture, have drastically reduced the time it takes for a fire to heat a room above 1,100 degrees, the point at which it is likely to burst into flames, firefighters and scientists say.
How flammable such fillings can be was shown in a catastrophic 2007 fire in a furniture showroom in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine firefighters.
And last year, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Firefighter Robert Wiedmann was burned over nearly half his body in a brownstone fire that officials said fed quickly on home furnishings and an inrush of air through opened windows.
The fire appeared to be confined to a rear bedroom, and firefighters expected it to be routine. But a front room in which Firefighter Wiedmann was searching burst into flames within seconds. A video posted on YouTube recorded the inferno, and a colleague’s desperate bid to save Firefighter Wiedmann’s life by slapping with gloves at his burning back.
Ventilation is not the only basic firefighting tactic coming under scrutiny.
For instance, it has long been considered a cardinal sin for firefighters to spray water on a room full of smoke with no flames. Water drives the smoke from the ceiling toward the floor, eliminating the low foot or two of visibility — and oxygen — along the floor that firefighters relied on to navigate an unfamiliar house and that survivors needed to breathe.
Some chiefs within the Fire Department have come to believe, however, that quickly dousing a smoky room to cool the gases near the ceiling might be more important than preserving any smoke-free corridor along the floor.
For weeks, department officials and scientists have stocked the 20 abandoned row houses on Governors Island, which for years had been used as Coast Guard housing, with red, purple and beige sofas and chairs, along with coffee tables and armoires — all bought from hotel liquidators.
On Monday, the scientists will start burning the houses down, while studying how the slightest change in ventilation — an opened door or a broken window — affects the heat and pressure indoors.
“Everyone assumed that when you ventilate, things cool off, that venting equals cooling,” said Stephen Kerber, a research engineer with Underwriters Laboratories who is helping run the experiments. “We’re proving time and time again that venting doesn’t cool and allows for things to get much hotter.”