Sponsored by FSRI
By Laura Neitzel, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff
Humans have always had a complicated relationship with technology.
Thomas Edison’s patent of the incandescent light bulb in 1880 and the related technologies that brought electric power into buildings revolutionized daily life for millions of Americans.
But as we’ve seen throughout time, with every new technology comes unintended consequences.
By the time the widespread use of electric power was celebrated at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, electricity-related fires were raising concern in the insurance industry. This created an opportunity for an electrical engineer named William Henry Merrill Jr. to found the Underwriters’ Electrical Bureau in 1894. This predecessor organization to today’s Underwriters Laboratories conducted its first test on non-combustible insulation that year.
“Merrill created the idea of a standard that must be met, in order to give comfort to the insurance industry that they can write a policy and that the people using that technology will ultimately be able to use it safely,” said Steve Kerber, vice president of research at Underwriters Laboratories and director of FSRI. “We’re still following that same mission that he created in the late 1800s. It’s just more dynamic now.”
Since its founding, Underwriters Laboratories has continued to foster innovation while safeguarding the future. This means staying on top of emerging technologies and global trends and mitigating against the unknowns.
FSRI is evolving
For over a decade, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute (FSRI) has advanced fire safety by partnering with the fire service to address the hazards firefighters face. While fire itself has not changed, the fire environment is changing, introducing new challenges to be overcome.
To keep pace with those changes, FSRI has rebranded as UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute and broadened its mission to encompass not only firefighter safety, but fire safety as a whole.
“Our job is to pay attention to all the trends that are happening in the world,” said Kerber, “and ask what that means for fire safety of the public? What does that mean for our workplaces? What does that mean for firefighter safety?”
Here’s a look at just three of many factors that are changing the fire environment and impacting fire safety.
1. New sources of energy
New sources of energy, like lithium-ion batteries that power our mobile devices and electric cars and battery storage technologies that enable us to store and access energy from renewable sources, are becoming increasingly prevalent alternatives to fossil fuels. They are also introducing new hazards that require a different kind of fire response.
“We’re now putting new ignition sources in homes. So, you see things like smart phones lighting pillows on fire when the kids sleep with it underneath their pillow, or it gets caught in a sofa cushion,” said Kerber. “Or hover boards get dropped and then they go into thermal runaway in the middle of the night and start spewing flaming debris onto a sofa.”
Without oxygen, a burning sofa would put itself out. But when a battery is on fire, one of the byproducts is oxygen, so even in an enclosed environment, a battery will keep burning and go into thermal runaway.
Because the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles are enclosed for vehicle safety, a battery fire in an electric vehicle is impossible to put out in the same way as a normal car fire.
“The problem is you’re essentially fighting a trick candle,” said Kerber. “You can flow water on what’s burning, but when you turn it off and gases come out, they reignite. You can’t get water onto the source of the fire, so you’ve got to wait it out or do something else.”
Being unable to isolate an electric vehicle on fire in a parking garage introduces not just a fire hazard to nearby vehicles, but also an explosion hazard since hydrogen is another byproduct created when a battery burns.
“Cars in garages is a big unknown right now,” said Kerber. “I am personally concerned that we’re having a situation where firefighters are going to open garage doors or occupants are going to open garage doors and we’re going to severely injure or kill people because we think it’s just a normal fire. And it’s not.”
In a webinar exploring the explosion of a lithium-ion battery energy storage system that severely injured four firefighters in Surprise, Arizona, Kerber expressed concern that the use of lithium-ion batteries has outpaced understanding of the hazards associated with them.
As part of its efforts to mitigate these unknowns, FSRI is expanding research into explosion hazards related to energy storage systems in houses and garages.
2. Aging populations
Demographics present another challenge. In 2019, there were 54.1 million Americans age 65 and older. This population is projected to reach 80.8 million by 2040 and 94.7 million by 2060, according to the Administration for Community Living.
Data from FEMA shows that the older adult population faces the greatest relative risk of dying in a fire. Factors like limited mobility, the design of residential facilities and types of materials used in building them make older adults especially vulnerable.
“We’ve got an aging population that is going to escape differently from fires than previously,” said Kerber. “We need those folks to have more time, and the environment in which they live is not giving them more time. It’s giving them less time.”
The elderly and the young could be more at risk when a fire occurs, so good education around fire prevention is critically important, Kerber says, and FSRI is working to better understand how to best address these issues.
“We need to make sure that we’re protecting those demographics that are most vulnerable, whether it be fire protection systems, or just general public education as to why they need to pay more attention,” he said.
3. Housing growth in the wildland-urban interface
“Recent dramatic and deadly increases in global wildfire activity have increased attention on the causes of wildfires, their consequences, and how risk from wildfire might be mitigated,” states a recent Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences on the changing risk and burden of wildfire in the United States. The report estimates that, as of January 2021, there are nearly 50 million homes in the wildland-urban interface in the U.S., an increase of approximately 1 million houses every three years.
This encroachment of human activity into the wildland increases the number of wildfires due to human ignitions. Combined with a natural increase in fuel aridity due to a warming climate, those wildfires – as we’ve seen – consume more acreage and become harder to fight as letting natural fires burn becomes impossible.
“We’re putting houses where houses never were, or maybe were never meant to be,” said Kerber. “When you get a community that’s built within the trees and there are dry conditions, lightning strikes can start a fire, even independent of human behavior. That’s how you start getting situations where there’s not enough time to escape or people have not followed the guidance and built defensible places around their homes.”
FSRI will be expanding its research and expertise in the urban component of the wildland-urban interface and partnering with wildland experts to do more research and reporting to help better manage these issues.
Watch this video to learn more about the next chapter in FSRI’s evolution.
TIME MARCHES ON
New York Herald Tribune columnist Walter Lippmann, writing upon Edison’s death in 1931, correctly predicted that “the ‘wisdom’ modern Americans would require to fully comprehend the rapid changes around them would grow far more slowly than the inventions themselves.”
That is still true today. As time marches on, innovation will continue. The devices we use, the homes we live in, the cars we drive and our natural environment are changing and will continue to change.
“I think we’re going to have more challenges than we’re going to have solutions. That’s just the nature of how things evolve,” said Kerber. “But the vision is really that we get to a point where we understand the current issues in such a way that we can tackle new and emerging issues in real time.”
By expanding its mission and conducting practical research into how the fire environment is changing, FSRI will be giving the fire service more insight to deal with changes in the fire environment and find new solutions to existing and emerging challenges before an emergency response is required.
“We have to rise to this challenge and keep pace with this change,” said Kerber, “if we’re going to fulfill the ultimate goal for everyone to live in a fire-safe world.”
Visit FSRI to learn more.
 Baldwin, N. (2001). Edison: Inventing the century. University of Chicago Press. Page 409.