House fires injure or kill thousands of Americans every year and now they are more likely to burn faster than ever. A new report found fires spread more quickly in newer homes and homes with newer products and materials – giving people less time to escape.
“We live in homes that are filled with things that burn fast, burn hot, and put out very deadly gas,” said Jason Rhodes, Overland Park Fire Department Media Manager. “We use more products in our home that are synthetic that are made out of petroleum based products – plastics and synthetic fibers – so those things burn quick and hot.”
Just a few decades ago, home furnishings were made mostly of wood, natural fabrics, and metal. Those tend to take longer to catch fire than plastics and synthetic materials that are now in carpets, couches, and even cell phones.
The new report from Underwriters’ Laboratory found fires burn more quickly nowadays – especially in newer homes which are built more efficiently.
“There’s a chance that it’s very air tight and it’s also filled with perhaps some light weight construction materials that may not last as long when exposed to fire,” Rhodes said.
Home builders also use less construction materials in new homes.
“They’re lighter in weight, they can span longer distances and they’re very strong. But in a fire they can collapse much more quickly than conventional wood and that often happens very unexpectedly,” said Ron Hazelton, a home safety expert .
Hazelton is pushing for sprinklers in homes because the report found fires in new homes can become deadly in less than three minutes – much sooner than in older homes.
“Considering what I’m getting in return which is safety for myself and my kids and my wife, I think (a sprinkler system) is a good investment,” Hazelton told 41 Action News via satellite interview.
Besides saving lives, sprinklers can also help prevent the estimated $7 billion in property damage that fires cause each year.
“Studies have shown they can reduce the amount of damage in a home that were to have a fire by up to 70%,” said Drew Robbins, Vice President of Jayhawk Fire Sprinkler.
The Lenexa, Kansas, based company told 41 Action News that customers who install sprinkler systems usually don’t live close to a fire station or a hydrant.
“They’re worried about response times from their fire department,” said Robbins.
The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), which sets fire safety standards across the country, encourages the use of sprinklers in homes and states on its website that just one sprinkler head can contain 85% of fires .
Each sprinkler head is set to operate at a certain temperature. A sprinkler system can cost thousands of dollars to install in an average sized home being built.
“What we see in the Midwest is normally about $1.50 to $3 a square foot depending on finishes, customizations,” Robbins said, who points out that costs go up to retrofit an existing home with sprinklers.
Most States Don’t Mandate Sprinklers
As of 2011, fire sprinklers are now required in new homes being built in California and Maryland .
Other states like Missouri failed to approve similar bills. Kansas passed a law in 2012 that prevents cities and counties from requiring sprinklers in most homes.
“It’s somewhat, in my opinion, counterintuitive that you know the state would mandate that you cannot force people in new construction to install a sprinkler system,” Robbins said.
Home safety expert Ron Hazelton told 41 Action News that he accepts Kansas’ law, even though he promotes sprinklers in homes.
“I understand people don’t want houses to be any more expensive but I have fire sprinklers in my own home,” Hazelton said. “I understand the problem, though, of some people not wanting it mandated.”
The Overland Park Fire Department is sympathetic to homeowners who may not have the money to pay for a sprinkler system.
“Fire suppression device of any sort is great to have and the more you can afford and install the better but for some people it’s probably impractical,” said Jason Rhodes with OPFD.
Although many people may not be able to afford sprinklers, firefighters and FEMA’s home safety checklist stress the importance of at least having working smoke alarms in all residences.
“We rarely go to a fire that has working smoke alarms and find any kind of victims,” said Rhodes.
While most homes don’t have sprinklers, firefighters say it’s usually the homes without working smoke alarms where they see tragedies.