No doubt about it: It's a hot subject. And despite the pun, it's a serious one affecting many lives.
Rich Mulhaupt, administrator of the National Fire Protection Research Foundation, calls it "the fire safety issue of the next five years or so."
The issue: Flammability of furnishings and toxicity of ensuing gases in high-risk public places.
Hotels, hospitals, nursing homes: These are the places that Susan Jonas, a manager of Owens-Corning Fiberglas in New York, says "present the greatest potential for loss of lives."
In her work she has been closely involved in the development and testing of new flame-resistant textile systems for upholstered seating, bedding, window treatments and wall coverings.
The need for new flame-resistant furnishings has been underscored by fires in buildings that serve the public.
In motels and hotels alone, there were 9,000 fires in 1984, the last year for which statistics were available, that caused 120 deaths and property losses of $50 million, the National Fire Protection Assn. recently reported, and in 33% of these fires, soft goods and furnishings were the materials first ignited.
Jonas gave these statistics in a seminar appropriately titled "Burning Issues" at the American Society of Interior Designers National Conference held in Los Angeles earlier this month.
The seminar also featured Gordon Damant, chief of the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and a national leader in product evaluation and regulation, and interior designer Norman DeHaan of Chicago, whose firm has completed several projects in the last few years involving state-of-the-art flame-resistant furnishings.
The technology is growing so rapidly, he noted, that what was state of the art up to four years ago may not be state of the art today.
Some wonderful fire-retardant materials are being used now, he noted, and still others are being developed. He talked about using fiberglass textile threads that look and feel like traditional fabrics, fiberglass beams and fiberglass moldings.
Jonas described how fires of the early '80s--among them, the MGM Hotel fire in Las Vegas, which took 84 lives, caused more than 600 injuries and resulted in millions of dollars in damages--inspired textile companies such as Burlington and United Merchants to work with bedding and furniture manufacturer to develop furnishings that would resist fire and, hopefully, reduce the number of casualties.
The Missing Link
The coalition acknowledged the fire safety "systems approach" of the Boston Fire Department, which has the strictest fire safety code in the country. The approach recognizes four elements of a building's fire safety system: fire detection, notification, suppression and control of combustible furnishings. The Boston Fire Department looks at effective furniture flammability control as the missing link in most fire safety systems.
"The emphasis has been on sprinklers and smoke detectors," Jonas observed. "We're talking about stopping the fire before it starts through the flame-resistant furnishings."
With this in mind, the coalition of manufacturers, hotel interests and others learned to use woven glass fabrics as barriers to encapsulate volatile materials, such as foam, to prevent contact with flame.
Mattresses, which Jonas termed "a prime contributor to a room's fuel load," are being encapsulated, for example, in a flame-resistant woven glass ticking, sewn around the mattress with special glass-fiber thread, locking-up the flammable contents to prevent their ignition in a fire.
Barrier to Flames
The same theory was used in developing an encapsulation process for upholstered furnishings, sewing in a flame-resistant material between the standard fabric and standard foam. The idea is for the barrier to prevent flame from reaching flammable cushioning.
It works, Jonas says, pointing to tests conducted in 1983 that convinced some hotel owners to join forces with furnishings manufacturers (Serta, Kaylyn, Shelby Williams and Sealy) in installing the new textile systems.
The Americana Hotel chain was one of the first to install the materials, and other hotel owners followed. Holiday Inns developed a prototype flame-resistant room using the encapsulation concept and other new flame-resistant textile systems, including tightly woven carpeting and fire-extinguishing collapsible wastebaskets. The room is on display at its Memphis franchisee showroom.
MHM Inc., which calls itself the largest independent hotel management company in the country, recently opened a Hampton Inn Hotel in Addison, Tex., where flame-resistant materials were used in all upholstered furnishings, bedding and window treatments. Inter-Continental Hotels presented a prototype high-performance flame-resistant room at the first restaurant/hotel international design exposition and conference held in Chicago in April.
Materials More Costly