When it comes to fire safety, most home owners may think newer is better. But it turns out older homes have some lifesaving differences built into the construction.
Every minute and a half, a home catches on fire in the United States. In 2013 alone, there were 6,929 reported fires in North Carolina, which resulted in 44 deaths and 354 injures.
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When firefighters approach a burning home, their goal is simple: put the fire out and rescue anyone inside. But making it happen is a very complex and planned out operation.
“We get fire traveling faster than we can move,” said Fire Marshal Todd Iaeger, with the Chapel Hill Fire Department.
The faster the fire travels, the harder it is for firefighters to save a home. With modern changes to today’s homes, firefighters face new challenges because of the homes’ sizes and designs.
“We have these big areas now where we can accumulate a lot of smoke in one area” Iaeger explained. “Smoke is one of the biggest contributors because it’s a fuel package — it can burn itself.”
This also makes it more difficult for firefighters trying to find someone trapped inside.
“It’s going to be a lot easier to search a [smaller] room … than a 2,500-square-foot open room,” Iaeger added.
He said older homes are much more compartmentalized, which keeps the fire from spreading as quickly.
Deputy Chief Chris Iannuzzi, with the Durham Fire Department, pointed out an entrance hallway in a home built in the 1970s doesn’t allow for as much oxygen, which fuels fires.
“A lot of the new homes don’t really have a hallway; they have big open foyer sometimes,” Iannuzzi explained.
He added that with a push for better energy efficiency, that oxygen is sealed in newer homes. He said the height of newer ceilings can also help fire grow inside of a home.
“Some of the new homes, they’re almost all 9-foot ceilings, which that’s additional oxygen to start that fire,” he said.
Iannuzzi said the materials a house is made of also plays a role in fire safety. He said most older homes are built with conventional, solid lumber.
“Most homes now use what’s called lightweight construction, supported by a system of trusses,” Iannuzzi explained. “It’s very strong until the it’s under a fire load, then it can fail very quickly”
He said older windows also often times have more flexibility, which means they won’t shatter as fast as new ones.
Iannuzzi said the biggest fuel for fire in newer homes is the stuff we own that we keep inside.
“Everything in the house today, almost all of it is plastic,” Iannuzzi said.
Plastic is petroleum-based, which means it’s going to ignite. That also includes everything from couches to curtains, which are usually made with synthetics.
“These newer-type of materials will burn five times hotter in about a quarter of the time,” Iannuzzi said.
Regardless of the age of a home, however, Iannuzzi said it is prevention and planning that could ultimately save a life.
“You can be safe in any type of home you just have to know what to do,” Iannuzzi said.
He said that instead of updating counter tops or appliances, there is one thing worth investing in that could buy life-saving minutes: a sprinkler system. A sprinkler system will cost about $1,000, but it’s an upgrade that firefighters say is worth every penny.
“Let me clear this up,” Iannuzzi said. “One of the biggest objections to sprinklers is that my whole house is going to get messed up — it’s not. [Sprinklers] only spray above the room with an active fire. They will put the fire out or at least put it in check long enough to get out and also allow us to get there.”