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Couch Fires

September 7, 2012

Campus Fire Safety is an electronic newsletter from Campus Firewatch.  Having worked with colleges and universities all of my career, I keep an eye on Campus Firewatch.  A recent issue of Campus Fire Safety (http://campusfiresafety.wikispaces.com/Couches+on+Porches) underscores a nation-wide trend that we’ve not seen here regarding couches on porches and decks.  After dormitory fires of the last decade (some with fatalities, http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jan/20/news/mn-55831), colleges and universities are using furniture with a much better flame-spread rating.  That’s reduced fire loading in dormitories.  However college students are moving old couches into apartments where dormitory fire regulations aren’t enforced.  Often the couch winds up on the front porch.  Some cities have passed laws against this to get rid of eyesores and health problems (mold, vermin and insects).  Another consequence, however, has been the fire hazard.

Few people are familiar with the amount of heat energy stored in an upholstered couch.  Firefighters look at upholstered furniture as a tremendous amount of heat energy and cringe.  Some even use the term ‘solid gasoline’ to describe how a couch burns.  We can quote a lot of fire protection engineering about peak heat release rates and time vs. temperature curves.  Let’s just say that upholstered furniture will produce the most heat of any fuel package in your living room, and it will do so quicker than anything else in your living room.  That’s why furniture stores have fire suppression systems.

So we know that upholstered furniture is a huge contributor to fire growth.  Now, college and university towns are finding these large fuel packages on the front porch.  It sounds like moving that fire load outside would be safer for occupants.  That’s not necessarily the case.  Most upholstered furniture ignitions occur from discarded smoking materials that smolder while the occupants go inside to bed.  The couch on the front porch starts fire while no one is present.  By the time anyone inside is aware there is a fire on the front porch, it’s huge and blocking the front entrance.  The fire climbs the exterior walls, heats and breaks out windows and is inside the structure in a short time.   Now we have a large fire both inside and outside the building while people are waking up and trying to get out.  Studies show that 14% of these fires produce fatalities.  These fires have become a real problem in some communities.

We’ve not seen that here.  Maybe we’re lucky.  Maybe our citizens are smarter than the average citizen (I vote for that one).  Or maybe it just hasn’t caught up with us here yet.  We’ve seen several cases in Spokane County where accidental smoking-related fires on back decks or porches cause significant damage to apartment complexes (http://wp.me/p1jTZ6-4x).  If we compound that problem with the fuel package represented by an upholstered couch, we could see the dollar loss and life loss figures increase dramatically.

Be careful with ignition sources around upholstered furniture.  It will burn hotter and quicker than anything else in your house.  If you have a couch on the porch or deck, be even more careful.  No one wants to see this trend move to Spokane County.

If you’ve got questions about fire safety and prevention, or if you would like a home visit from one of our staff, call me at 509-466-4602, or e-mail me at dbleeker@scfd9.org, or post your question here on this blog.

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From → Fire Prevention

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