Thirty years ago, it took about 20 minutes for a fire to flashover, igniting all the items in an area. Nowadays, it can take as little as four minutes, because today's furniture and building materials are more typically made from synthetic materials that burn "hotter and faster." Which is why the New York City's Fire Department, along with National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL), is in the middle of a six-day experiment to learn more about these faster-moving fires by setting three fires a day in old, unused housing on Governors Island.
Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said, "We're going to test many of our procedures, our ventilation tactics, coordination of ventilation tactics—opening the doors, windows, bulkhead—to see if we need to change any procedure we've put in place." Previously, the common wisdom was to ventilate the fire immediately but fires involving plastics, pressed woods, and other synthetic products can flash with the introduction of more oxygen. Cassano said, "What we hope to gain out here is a small advantage in how we fight fires." Last year, firefighter Robert Wiedmann was badly burned in a Crown Heights brownstone fire when, officials believe, more air entered through opens windows.
The FDNY, NIST and UL has spent months planning the experiment, which culminated in this week's live burns in decommissioned Coast Guard housing on Governors Island (the buildings were scheduled for demolition anyway). They have spent a week setting up each house with around hundred sensors—"heat-flux gauges, pressure sensors, bi-directional probes and thermal imaging cameras"—so every aspect of the fire, from the temperature at different heights (for firefighters if they are standing or crawling) to oxygen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, etc., can be measured in each scenario.
The homes are filled with hotel furniture from a liquidator, and an electronic match—simulating a burning matchbook—is set ablaze on a couch. John Drengenberg, an engineer with Underwriters Laboratories, says that his team conducts numerous scenarios at their offices, but this week, "We're bringing science to the street and this is where the firefighters face their challenges... Fires today are hotter and faster today" than they have ever been "and it's because of the preponderance of synthetic products in our home. It's not a problem your grandparents ever had, we do today. It's not necessarily bad, but it does make fires burn hotter and faster. So there's an evolution going and this will give us new information and data."
Around 300 firefighters are taking part in the experiment this week. The fire that the media observed was set in a basement, with the scenario not involving any victims that needed to be rescued (if there were victims, firefighters would move to rescue them).
One observation that fire officials made after the burn is that on the second floor, where the bedrooms are located, the oxygen levels remained tenable in the bedroom where the door was closed, while the bedroom which had its door open, the oxygen level dropped to a very low, life-threatening percentage. So close your doors when you go to sleep!
In 2006, the FDNY conducted a study of wind-driven fires in highrises (also with NIST and UL) where changes trickled down across the entire department about a year, after some piloting. However, Commissioner Cassano expects that if there are any significant findings from the live burn experiment, the department will integrate them quickly.