North Texas

NBC 5 Investigates: How Closed Doors Can Provide Life-Saving Seconds in House Fires

New research shows keeping doors closed can help keep smoke and heat out, increasing the odds of surviving a fire

An NBC 5 investigation finds new research that shows how sleeping with your bedroom door closed can help buy lifesaving seconds in a fire, giving precious time to find a way out or to protect yourself until firefighters can reach you.

If you wake up to a fire, the first thing you should try to do is get out, but what if you can’t?

A closed door can do more than keep smoke out of a room. Research is showing how doors also change the flow of heat and toxic gases, acting as a shield for someone trapped and unable to get out of a fire.

“If you can’t get of your home, you want a closed door between you and the fire,” said Steve Kerber, director of the Underwriters Laboratories Firefighter Safety Research Institute.

Kerber has conducted hundreds of fire studies at UL working with fire departments across the country.

He said along with smoke detectors, a closed door is the best possible thing.

“If you are trapped in your home you want a closed door between you and the fire,” said Kerber.

Kerber showed NBC 5 Investigates several tests they conducted showing how much of a difference a closed door can make.

In one test, Kerber’s team lights a fire in a living room. The house is an open floor plan, like many homes in North Texas, with a great room that opens up to the second floor. Upstairs there are two bedrooms, one with the door open, the other is closed.

Just a minute and a half after the fire starts downstairs, smoke is already entering the upstairs bedroom with the open door.

“We have a significant amount of smoke in that room,” Kerber points out.
After just three minutes, the room with the open door is full of thick, black smoke. But the room with the door closed, the air stays clear longer.

Five minutes into the fire, there’s still some visibility in the room with the closed door. In the rest of the house smoke has choked out the light.

“Over and over again, the difference between closed and open is dramatic,” said Kerber.

In 2012, UL conducted a series of tests On Governors Island, New York along with the New York City Fire Department. Researchers set 20 abandoned town houses on fire, to see how fires spread through modern homes. Among their findings, closed doors not only blocked smoke, they also kept out dangerous heat.

To show you, NBC 5 Investigates suited up with The Fort Worth Fire Department at their new, state-of-the-art training facility.

Wearing air packs and safety gear, firefighters light a fire in a hallway outside a bedroom. Using a thermal imaging camera you can see the door is glowing from the heat of the fire out in the hallway.

“On the other side of the door, the temperature is approximately 600 degrees,” said Lt. Kyle Faulkner, with the Fort Worth Fire Department.

But the door is such an effective barrier that inside the room, the temperature is only about 100 degrees. Hot, but still survivable.

To get an even better idea of the door’s impact we open the door to see how the room changes. Almost immediately the room gets hotter.

With the door open and the heat coming in, the room temperature rises to about 150 degrees. Without protective gear, the room would not be survivable for long.

In Fort Worth’s fire simulator building, they showed NBC 5 Investigates another example. Right outside a bedroom door, they simulate a furniture fire. The simulator does not create smoke but it shows how heat travels in a fire.

Behind a door, right next to the fire, they show the difference a closed door makes. They open the door and the thermal imaging camera detects a rapid temperature increase of hundreds of degrees.

Kerber said 30 seconds can make a difference when it comes to surviving a fire — and seconds may be more important today than ever.

UL’s research has shown materials used to build houses and furniture today makes fires burn faster and hotter than decades ago.

“With everything we’ve seen in the studies, there’s no doubt I would suggest that people sleep with their doors closed,” said Kerber.

Kerber said parents worried about not hearing their kids at night should use a baby monitor.

If kids are scared of sleeping with the door closed, Kerber suggests keeping “the door cracked. Wait till the kid goes to sleep and the last thing you do before you go to sleep is pull it closed the rest of the way.”

Eleven years ago, Lexi King woke up and her house was on fire.

“If I could go back in time, I would beg my brother to close his door that night. Beg him. So that he could be here,” said King, who survived a house fire in Corpus Christi.

She lost her brother Oliver that night.

Her parents, Dr. Peter Serrao and Heidi Serrao also died.

"They were just amazing people. And I look back on my childhood with such gratefulness,” said King.

King, who was just 10 at the time of the fire, believes a closed bedroom door helped save her life.

She always slept with her door closed, but like a lot of kids her brother liked to sleep with his door open. She said the closed door gave her extra time that her brother didn’t have.

“I had time to take a deep breath. I had that extra oxygen that he didn't have anymore,” King said. “Definitely get those extra seconds. Because of how precious those extra seconds are."

In King’s case, a missing smoke detector battery also cut the time her family had to react.

But she used the extra seconds she had behind a closed door to plan her escape, grabbing a wet towel to cover her face as she crawled toward her parents’ bedroom.

She and her mom jumped from a window. Her mom died in the fall. Her dad was lost trying to reach her brother.

“I’m able to graduate school. I’m able to have a family, get married, things like that. And that’s not what my brother’s able to do. And that’s the difference between a closed door and open door,” said King.

A closed bedroom door is still no replacement for smoke detectors.

Firefighters said you should have a working smoke detector inside and outside each bedroom and have an escape plan and practice it with your family.

Closing the door is something you can add to that checklist.

Following the original broadcast of Part 1, NBC 5's Scott Friedman and the Fort Worth Fire Department's Lt. Kyle Falkner took part in a Q&A session on Facebook.  The results of that session are below:

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Lt. Kyle Falkner with the Fort Worth Fire Department and I are here to take your questions on our #CloseTheDoor #NBC5Investigates report.

Posted by Scott Friedman NBC5 on Monday, November 9, 2015

Part 2 of this series will air Tuesday night at 10 p.m.

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