Study Examines Incapacitation from Smoke

A recent study by the Fire Protection Research Foundation of the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) examines the incapacitating effects of smoke in an effort to ensure that people can escape a burning building before being overcome.

The work is part of a revolution in fire safety in which codes and standards are beginning to address how much smoke will incapacitate people, rather than how much will kill them.

"For most of the history of fire science and fire safety, our efforts have focused on how much smoke would kill a person," explained Rick Mulhaupt, president of the research foundation. "Now, we're recognizing that many people die in fires – not because smoke killed them on the spot – but because smoke or heat prevented them from getting out of the building."

In 2002, the ISO (International Organization for Standardization), a network of the industrial-standards institutes of 147 countries, put forth a new standard calling for attention to the "sublethal" effects of smoke – when the heat, the thickness of smoke, and the toxic gases in smoke will block vision, make a person choke or tear up, or render a person unconscious. Because of this new ISO standard, these effects of smoke are supposed to be taken into account when regulating the size and placement of exits and the types of materials allowed in buildings.

The research foundation recently completed the second phase of its International Study of the Sublethal Effects of Fire Smoke on Survivability and Health. In the most recent phase of the study, the foundation's researchers performed three tests: They burned a sofa made of upholstered cushions on a steel frame, some particle board bookcases, and some household cable. In each case, the materials were burned in a room with a long adjacent corridor.

The researchers measured the toxic gases emitted by each item, and how quickly the gases filled the room and moved down the corridor. They determined when and where in the room and in the hallway people would have to stop because of the smoke or the heat.

Fire-test laboratories and manufacturers are expected to use this data to develop smaller-scale tests that can be done in a laboratory, so they won't need to set a room on fire every time they test a product.

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