Special Segments

High-tech firefighting research underway in Northbrook lab

Monday, December 23, 2013

Most house fires are so fast and powerful you only have about three minutes after an alarm to get out safely. Now one Chicago area laboratory is trying to save lives and homes with its groundbreaking research.

These flames are burning through a home, inside a warehouse. The cutting edge experiment looks cool, but it can also help people like Shanquell Johnson.

"My babies could have been dead that night," said Johnson.

Johnson and her family lost almost everything the day before Thanksgiving to an electrical fire. They had to move out of their home in the Roseland neighborhood.

Researchers say this is a new and innovative idea. It's goal: to put fires out faster.

"What we are standing in is a home-- no rooms, no pictures on the wall," said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director, Underwriters Laboratories.

The company known for protecting consumers, Underwriters Laboratories, is running the study in a specially designed warehouse in Northbrook. Scientists and firefighters are here from around the country.

Within 45 seconds of lighting the fire, smoke billows through the roof. About 2 minutes later, flames shoot up as the roof is consumed.

The fire burned for 30 minutes, reaching temperatures of 500 degrees. Firefighters here are trying to figure out the fastest and best way to put out a fire.

"It's not as simple as you always put water here, or you always use this type of nozzle. It's understanding how the fire spreads by combing it with multiple types of suppression," said Steve Kerber, director, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute.

They're trying to figure out the best way to attack the fire with the water, and where exactly to spray it. They started this particular house fire in the attic.

"So we are seeing an increased number of attic fires due to the insulation people are putting on the outside of their home. So fires that start on the outside are spreading up to the attic, as well as lightning strikes and electrical shorts," said Kerber.

And there's less time to get out of any fire now. You used to have 17 minutes to run after the smoke alarm went off. That time is down to 3-4 minutes, because of more synthetic items like pillows, furniture and building materials now in most homes. They make fires burn faster and hotter.

Fire prevention experts say you need to properly maintain electrical, heating , ventilation and air conditioning systems and chimneys. Also, get those areas of the home inspected before moving in.

"This is unbelievable, I am still in a state of shock," said Johnson.

The Chicago Area Red Cross is helping the Johnson family and says neighborhoods like Roseland and Englewood are the so-called "hot zones." In 2013, the Red Cross responded to 123 fires and helped more than 550 people in both communities.

The experts at UL are hoping those numbers can be reduced after their research is complete.

"Just where is the heat? Where are the dangers for firefighters and of course for the occupants," said Drengenberg.

The detailed results of the firefighting study could take several months and Underwriters Laboratories will share them with fire departments across the country.

There are other things you can do to prevent fires. Keep a watchful eye on all of those holiday lights, and make sure your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are working.

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