Juggling Act: Why do we have less time to escape home fires? Our furniture

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Mourners gather at St. Paul on The Lake in Grosse Pointe Farms on Oct. 30 to remember Briggs and Logan Connolly who died in a house fire. Many wore hockey jerseys to remember the young boys, who were avid hockey players.

Orange plastic fencing surrounds a red bungalow on Fisher Road in Grosse Pointe while plywood covers the windows. What was once a home for a young family of four is now a boarded-up tragic reminder of what can go wrong in a matter of minutes.

Brothers Logan and Briggs Connolly, 9 and 11, were getting ready for school in late October when a fire broke out in their home. The two boys, who were only home because they had a late start at school that day, died of smoke and soot inhalation. The fire seems to have started in the kitchen.

There are no easy answers for a tragedy like a house fire — no way to make sense of how or the bigger question of why. But the reality is home fires have changed over the last four decades, experts say. We have less time to escape our homes these days — down from 17 minutes to just 3 — and more ignition sources. And one of the big reasons why is our furniture.

Furniture such as sofas that used to be made out of cotton with steel frames are now often stuffed with polyurethane foam with polyester batting, said Dan Madrzykowski, director of research at the UL Fire Safety Research Institute. And what burns faster and produces more energy? Polyurethane foam.

Madrzykowski said tests have shown that when a cotton sofa is exposed to open flames, it takes about an hour to burn, creating 3-4 foot flames. With a synthetic sofa, within 3 minutes the entire piece is engulfed in fire with 6-8 foot flames. 

“We’re getting twice the amount of energy,” said Madrzykowski. “That’s just one piece of furniture, not counting the carpeting, not counting any other pieces of furniture, not counting latex paint on the wall.”

These materials also burn inefficiently — meaning they burn hot and fast. And that means smoke.

“The biggest hazard they create is they fill your house with smoke — heavy, dense, toxic smoke,” said Madrzykowski. “And that smoke can find another place to burn so it can spread fire faster.”

No wonder why smoke detectors — which are all about prevention — are so important. There are three kinds of alarms, photoelectric (which uses a light beam), ionization alarms and dual sensor. But the technology is changing to make them even more efficient.

Madrzykowski recommends a new type of smoke detector, neural network, which is  just starting to hit the market,  that can differentiate between steam or smoke. One of the main reasons why people disconnect smoke detectors is because of too many false alarms, especially while cooking.

Neural network detectors “can differentiate between a hazardous fire versus a wanted fire, just something that you’re cooking,” he said. “The idea is that there should be less false alarms and they’re very effective.”

And while these alarms are slightly more expensive, Madrzykowski said, “You want to use the best technology you can.”

It’s to “keep your family safe.” 

Logan Connolly, 9, and Briggs Connolly, 11.

Another safe practice, Madrzykowski recommends: Sleep with your door closed. 

“Having the door closed gives you a safe haven to buy you some time until either you can self rescue through a window or the fire department can arrive,” he said. “There have been documented rescues of children who have been found behind closed doors and firefighters have been able to get them out safely.”

In the end, not just one thing will keep any family safe. We all need to take a comprehensive approach with working smoke detectors, escape plans and sleeping with the door closed.

It’s about more than our own families. We should do it for the Connolly brothers.