Newer homes and furniture burn faster, giving you less time to escape a fire

Research shows that 30 years ago, you had about about 17 minutes to escape a house fire.

Today it’s down to 3 or 4 minutes. The reason: Newer homes and the furniture inside them actually burn faster. A lot faster.

To demonstrate, Rossen Reports went to Underwriters Laboratories in Chicago, where two rooms were built side by side: one a flashback to the ’70s or ’80s with real wood and many natural materials, and the other a modern one with a lot of synthetic fibers, from the curtains to the couch to even the coffee table.

As firefighters stood by, a fire set to a sofa pillow in the modern room quickly spread across the sofa and jumped to other furniture: a lamp, an end table, a chair and coffee table. Within 3 minutes, flames were going through the roof.

Fire set in a modern room with many synthetic fibers spread much faster than in a comparable room using natural materials popular decades ago.

“The backing of your carpet is synthetic, your drapes are synthetic, the couch, the pillows are synthetic,” explained John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for UL. “They burn hotter and faster than natural materials do.”

A similar fire set to the sofa pillow in the room simulating an older home burned for several minutes without even catching the rest of the sofa. At 15 minutes the room was still intact; it wound up taking 30 minutes for the room to burn.

The American Home Furnishings Alliance, an industry group, told NBC News it supports a federal flammability standard for upholstered furniture, but only if product changes are safe, effective and affordable.

Until then: “When your smoke alarm goes off you don’t have time to look around, get your wedding pictures,” Drengenberg said. “You get out as quickly as you can.”

The National Association of Home Builders, another industry group, told NBC News that new building codes make houses safer. But fire experts say to have a fire escape plan for your family. The Red Cross has an easy worksheet to help you create one.


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Newer homes and furniture burn faster, giving you less time to escape a fire