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  • Press Release

Department of Homeland Security grant means improved firefighter safety in modern structures

February 15, 2010

NORTHBROOK, Ill., Feb. 15, 2010:  A scene encountered all too often on streets all over the country: fire engines and trucks arrive at a single-family home. The picture window has a telltale orange glow; other windows have an ominous black sooty appearance. One of the first responders notices siding near the front door is already melting. For the battalion chief on the scene, tactical decisions must be made quickly.  Seconds count, and lives are at stake. Protect the occupants, extinguish the fire and limit property damage, all while making sure firefighters are not taking unnecessary risks.  

Working in collaboration with the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) and a fire service advisory panel, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recently began a research project that will help the fire service worldwide improve firefighting tactics and reduce firefighter fatalities and injuries. 

The groundbreaking research project is part of a new Firefighter Safety Research Grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). UL has built two houses and is setting controlled large-scale fires inside a cavernous 10,000 square-foot test chamber at its world-class Large Scale Fire Test and Training Facility in Northbrook, Ill. Data gathered from the study will enhance understanding of fire behavior in residential structures when affected by natural ventilation (e.g., open doors and broken windows) as well as strategic ventilation tactics used by firefighters during an attack on a fire. 

"We have an incredible opportunity to help fire service worldwide better understand the effects of ventilation on fire behavior in a way never before possible," said Chris Hasbrook, vice president and general manager for UL's Fire Protection Division. "Providing our first responders advanced knowledge on the effectiveness of crucial firefighting tactics is at the forefront of our Public Safety Mission. We are excited about the potential for this research to help firefighters use fire science as a way of reducing risk and improving life safety around the globe."

UL is conducting the high-tech simulations in full-scale 1,500 and 3,200 square-foot dwellings that are representative of homes built prior to 1980 and homes built in recent years. Based on prior research and strong anecdotal evidence, fire experts believe that changes in newer contemporary-style construction including the use of manufactured lumber components, new building materials, more synthetic home furnishings and the size and geometry of new homes, have changed the dynamics of residential fires. Compared to the way older homes were built using heavy timber, larger joists and full penetration nails, and hardwood furniture, newer construction factors are contributing to rapid fire-spread and a notable decrease in tenability limits. 

"No matter where you are in the world, ventilation during a fire makes a huge difference in not only the growth and spread of a fire, but also in the overall tenability and time available to fight a fire before a structure collapse," said Chicago Fire Department Chief Richard Edgeworth. "This science-meeting-the-streets research provides crucial data that will immediately help us create guidelines for effective ventilation techniques, develop the necessary firefighting ventilation practices and better anticipate the failure of floor and wall construction, which will ultimately save lives."

Edgeworth said the research project will redefine fire behavior and emphasize the importance of combining suppression and ventilation tactics in a coordinated fire attack to prevent loss of life and reduce property damage.

This DHS research project is the latest example of UL's extensive fire science expertise and research capabilities.  Last year, UL completed a study on the "Structural Stability of Engineered Wood Lumber in Fire Conditions." In 2007, UL's Smoke Characterization Study provided previously unavailable data on how quickly synthetic materials burn compared to natural materials. The ongoing research directly responds to one of DHS' key goals to reduce firefighter fatalities and injuries through increased scientific understanding and improving awareness of potential hazards in residential fires.

UL expects to complete the research project in August and anticipates a report on the findings by late 2010.