At Underwriters Laboratories in north suburban Northbrook, they’re burning down the house to save lives.
For the past three weeks, scientists and firefighters have been setting fires inside two identical, 1,700-square foot ranch-style homes positioned inside a massive containment building. They are using 16 cameras and 250 sensors to measure temperature, smoke density, air currents and circulation — data that will be crunched into a landmark study .
“We’re able to pretty much tell what’s going on in every room in the structure, and then we have specific points that we’re more interested in which is allowing us to identify victim survivability inside a fire,” said Robin Zevotek of Firefighters Safety Research Institute.
Friday’s fire started with a trickle of smoke, but in just a few moments flames were rolling out the windows on both sides of the house. A tray of pig flesh is placed in each room to simulate human bodies. UL said the tests are needed becasue homes and furnishings have changed dramatically over the last 40 years, and traditional methods of attacking fires need to be re-examined.
“We all like bigger houses. We like open floor plans . And the furniture and drapes and carpeting all incorporate a lot of synthetic materials today that weren’t around 40 years ago. So fires burn hotter and faster today,” said John Drengenberg of Underwriters Laboratories.
What they learned here in the lab could potentially save lives in the real world when the study is completed in about a year and a half.
“The information that ultimately comes out — hopefully it will be useful in your bag of tricks as to how to go about fighting a fire,” said Capt. Terry Sheppard of the Chicago Fire Department.