When a fire case involves arson, a criminal may use accelerants to increase the fire's intensity and quicken the rate at which the structure burns. Even if a fire is not intentionally set, research shows that fires are spreading faster and burning hotter than ever before. It's a battle against the clock to fight flames and save the lives people and pets and their homes.
Research by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts shows an average living room can become completely engulfed in flames in less than 3 minutes, which means the Anchorage Fire Department must be working at a rapid pace to shorten their response times.
AFD Fire Chief Chris Bushue said his unit aims to arrive at the scene in less than 4 minutes. Bushue said they are successful 70-80% of the time.
“You cannot guarantee you will get to every call in under 4 minutes, not going to happen but if you try and hit that 90th percentile you're doing pretty good," said Bushue.
While 4 minutes may seem extremely fast to most of us, research shows a fire can reach a critical point within only 3 minutes. Meaning, many firefighters must enter a burning structure at the fire's most dangerous point.
“That point is called flashover so it's sort of a point where the energy is high enough that all combustibles will ignite pretty much simultaneously," said WPI Fire Protection Engineering Department Chair Kathy Notarianni.
Notoriani worked on a research project in 2011, which helped determine exactly how long it would take for an average living room to reach flashover.
“We knew it would flash in under 5 minutes but 166 seconds is under 3 minutes. I think that was a surprise even to us," said Notarianni.
Notarianni said flashover occurs when the temperature at the ceiling of a room reaches 1,112 degrees. That is a major change over the last 40 years. She said that in the 1970's it took about 17 minutes to hit flashover.
“Couches were not oversized and overstuffed," said Notarianni. "They were made of more natural materials now you have over stuffed cushions filled with foam. These things burn faster; they produce more toxins in the air so it's a very different.”
“All these factors are why it is, our job is, to all about getting there and mitigating the emergency as fast as we can,” said Bushue.
AFD said the best way to ensure quicker response times is minimize the distance between fire stations and residential zones. They call it strategic station placement. It’s something AFD is currently working to improve.
“We are looking to establish a station in Mountain View and that would be, give us more strategic coverage and take the station that’s essentially on airport heights and divide them up to give us better coverage,” said Bushue.
Fire chief Bushue said no matter how quickly firefighters arrive on the scene, it's tough to know exactly when a room is nearing flashover. He said t's even more difficult to decide whether firefighters should enter such a dangerous structure.
“There is science behind it but there's only so much science you can apply. Every building is different, every fire is different and that's why it's so critical for that captain to have the experience, have the knowledge and I'll say it, have the courage to make those calls that's what we depend on them to do,” said Bushue.
While getting to the fire quickly is a top priority, saving lives is their ultimate goal, and that includes the lives of both the homeowners and firefighters.
The research done by WPI helped to design of a new tool which aims to predict when a room is close to reaching that critical flashover point. That device is still in production and testing phase but researchers hope someday it could help to save lives.
Contact Mallory Peebles