Experts and fire-fighters explained the increasing risk from smoke in fire in modern buildings, because of new materials, green building and furnishings, in a webinar organised as part of European Fire Safety Week 2020 (160 participants).
Patrick van Hees, Lund University, explained that smoke is critical to fire fatalities and to escape from fire. Modern buildings increasingly have large and open spaces, high fire loads in contents and voids which can allow fire and smoke spread. New materials used in construction and interiors can reduce escape time, release toxic fire gases and shorten time before building structural collapse. This is accentuated by energy efficient buildings, which are air tight, with only mechanical ventilation, leading to increases in pressure with fire and low oxygen.
Lieuwe de Witte, IFV (Netherlands Institute for Safety), also emphasised that furnishings using modern synthetic materials generate much more heat and smoke than those made of natural materials. Upholstered furniture is the most common object of origin in fires with fatalities (> 25 % of fire deaths in The Netherlands). Within 3 to 5 minutes of a fire starting in a residential room, heat and smoke are untenable and escape is impossible.
A large-scale series of tests in a disused residential building by IFV (link and presentation) shows that fire starting in a room containing only an upholstered sofa can rapidly lead to fatal conditions in the corridor outside the room if the room door is opened even briefly. Heat, irritating gases, asphyxiating gases and visibility (smoke) were assessed. People in other rooms along the corridor are at risk from smoke if they open their door, but cannot escape if they do not. Carbon monoxide, in particular, can spread rapidly through buildings.
Bart Merci, Ghent University, and Pieter Poppe, ISIB, presented further large-scale studies of smoke propagation in buildings, underlining the dangers for elderly or vulnerable people, who are at risk of not being able to escape (link).
Concluding, René Hagen, Netherlands Fire Service Academy, noted that studies repeatedly confirm the contribution of upholstered furniture and mattresses to residential fire deaths. Smoke detectors are important, but not sufficient. Sprinkler systems are effective, but not installed in many buildings. Low Ignition Propensity cigarettes, however, have been shown to be largely ineffective (see e.g. Bonander et al. in pinfa Newsletter n°84) so that smoking and upholstered furniture or bedding remains a deadly combination.
European Fire Safety Week 2020, webinar #3: Smoke propagation in residential buildings, 18th November 2020: https://www.europeanfiresafetyalliance.org/european-fire-safety-week-2020/