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Fire safety, working detectors "critical" if your home was built recently


WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAU) -- That new house or apartment you live in is nothing like grandma and grandpa’s house, and what you don’t know can kill you.

The danger is if your home catches fire, because it doesn’t burn the same way the older structures burn.

Dave DeSantis of the Wausau Fire Department says the modern construction materials are cost-effective, great to work with, and often have superior load strength... but they have one big drawback few people realize. They burn faster. “New furniture, new furnishing, and new construction products, they’re using plastics. The glues, the urethanes, all of it is highly flammable, highly combustible material.”

He says the modern materials and furnishings often flash fire and completely engulf a room in smoke and flames before the fire department can get to the scene.  “It shortens the window of time that we have where we can get in, safely get that fire out, do a search and rescue, and be out of that building before we’re in danger of injury or death from collapse on our end.”

The reason newer buildings fail sooner in a fire has to do with the density of the construction materials. DeSantis says firefighters don’t have much time if a rescue is needed in new construction. “Two-by-six, two-by-eight, two-by-ten, and even up to two-by-twelve rough sawn lumber in some cases, a lot denser product. It would be like trying to burn a full log versus burning the same volume of wood if it went through a chipper. When you have that much more surface area and exposure, which you do in lighter construction, it combusts quicker and fails sooner.”  He says, “A room and contents fire with new furnishings, with the urethanes, with the plastics, you can get a room to flash over in roughly three to four minutes versus old style furniture, you could have up to twenty to twenty-five minutes to safely exit.”

DeSantis says newer buildings built with manufactured wood products use glues that melt at a certain temperature. When that happens, roof trusses and floor joists simply collapse before they burn. That’s why it’s important to have smoke detectors and a family escape plan.  “The best thing you can have is working smoke detectors on every level of your home. Working smoke detectors in the bedroom, interconnected if at all possible through hard wiring or radio frequency, and having a plan in place and practicing that plan with your family.”

Modern construction uses technological advancements like plastics and glues, but DeSantis wishes government would take a serious look at requiring sprinklers in residential buildings.  “The water is a lot easier to clean up than what we leave behind. If we could get residential sprinklers into the building code and accepted, that would be the best thing in the world. That would save lives versus anything else we could do.”

Phil Rentmeester from the Wausau Fire Department says the risk of a fire in modern construction is not just the people that live there, it’s also a risk to the firefighters on the scene.  “We’ll be stepping into a situation that is potentially volatile. We’re going to be coming into this situation where these furnishings are fully engulfed, potentially. We could be going into an area where there’s fire in multiple rooms.” adding, “The modern construction has changed as well, so firefighters safety is put at risk as well.”

DeSantis and Rentmeester both urge people to check their detectors often, and to replace detectors that are over five years old because the sensors don’t always work... even if the test button does.

Listen to our interview with Dave DeSantis and Phil Rentmeester from the Wausau Fire Department at our website, here. They go into more detail, and offer some suggestions for making your home safer.

The attached videos showing the difference between modern buildings and furnishings versus the older styles are from Wausau Fire Department training excercises and from Underwriters Laboratories.