NY Times - July 03, 2012by ERIC P. NEWCOMER
The fire, burning inside the uninhabited two-story brick building, had been ignited minutes earlier in a controlled setting, for the New York Fire Department to study how fires spread in the modern home filled with plastic-filled furniture, which burns quickly.
Before the fire got under way, Building D, done up with furnishings that had once been in hotel rooms, was loaded with equipment. Video and thermal cameras transmitted images to monitors in a command center nearby. Sensors, many wrapped in ceramic fibers and aluminum foil to protect them from the flames, measured the flow of gases, the temperature and the pressure at various points inside.
Researchers from Underwriters Laboratories and from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the Commerce Department, stood alongside the firefighters, watching the flames take hold. This was one of 20 burns planned for the week to examine different strategies for putting out fires.
"The real beauty of this is working with the fire service," said Daniel Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer with the government institute. "We can do lots of things in the laboratories, but firefighters don't fight fires in laboratories."
The fire in Building D started with a countdown and the push of a button that sent a spark to ignite a matchbox sitting on a sofa; only a window was left open. The room's single entryway made it hard for the fire to expand as it burned through the limited oxygen available. As expected, when a firefighter pried a door open, the flames grew and began to spread up into the first floor.
As plastic furniture fillings have replaced cotton ones in American houses, fires have typically spread faster, the flames consuming much of the oxygen around them quickly. Once firefighters arrive at a fire, they often begin by opening a door or window to look inside and ventilate smoke. With the influx of oxygen, flames can expand in a flash, injuring firefighters.
One objective of this week's tests is to explore whether, and how, the Fire Department should apply water without trying to ventilate the room -- possibly avoiding sudden fire bursts.
"The faster you get water on the fire the better," said Steve Keber, a research engineer for Underwriters Laboratories.
Robert Maynes, a deputy assistant chief, stressed that even if the Fire Department's methodology changed, protecting human life would remain its first priority.
In a test in another building, the temperature and levels of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in bedrooms on higher floors will be monitored as a fire burns downstairs, so firefighters can understand how quickly conditions upstairs become fatal. When that fire has been ignited, one bedroom door will be closed and another left open: because simple variables can make huge changes in how fire behaves, researchers expect the differences to be pronounced.
Back in Building D, after the flames moved to the second story, the firefighting began. Where firefighters would normally try to get above the flames, in this test they sprayed water through an open window. Later this week, a firefighter will instead use a high-powered fire extinguisher to dampen the flames in a room before closing internal doors to block the fire .
"Change doesn't come easy," Chief Maynes said. But he said the Fire Department would adapt.