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Furniture Fires

Nov 17, 2006 | PAULA ZAHN NOW

ZAHN: Tonight's top consumer story is one we think you and your family need to see, because it involves potential deadly fires that can break out on sofas or chairs like the ones you may even be sitting on right now. In fact, nearly a dozen people are killed every week by furniture-related fires. And our consumer correspondent Greg Hunter has been looking into this for a very long time and has more in this original investigation.

Anybody in that room is no longer alive. GREG HUNTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You protect don't realize it, but when it comes to home fires, your furniture can be deadly.

Just weeks ago, a woman in Ft. Myers, Florida, woke up to smoke and a small fire on her sofa. She ran to get an extinguisher from a neighbor, but by the time she got back, minutes later, it was too late; her two toddlers were dead.

It was almost too late for Caroline Rouen Dixon back in 1987. A cigarette left carelessly smoldering on a sofa by a friend almost cost her her life.

CAROLINE ROUEN DIXON, FURNITURE FIRE SURVIVOR: The smoke was very black and thick.

HUNTER: She thought she had enough time to get out, but quickly the fire engulfed the house, and Rouen Dixon was trapped inside. She suffered third-degree burns over 65 percent of her body.

DIXON: The only part of me that doesn't have some sort of scar on it is my face.

HUNTER: Incredibly, even though almost 20 years have passed since Rouen Dixon was burned, there are still no federal regulations mandating furniture companies to make their products fire resistant.

On average, 10 people die every week as a result of furniture- related fires.

 Magazines, leather couches, curtains, all the things in your home just make you more comfortable. But if you study fire the way they do at Underwriters Laboratory, to them all this really represents is fuel, and they just have two main questions how fast will it burn and how long will it give you to get out?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a synthetic room.

HUNTER: The experts at UL, an independent, not-for- profit product safety testing organization say different furniture burns differently, and they showed us just how much that matters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, ignition.

HUNTER: A candle was left burning on a microfiber coach in this room created for this demonstration. The furniture is made up and covered by synthetic materials.

After 1 minute and 48 seconds, the smoke alarm went off.

Less than two minutes later, the fire was out of control, and our crew forced out of the room.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, ignition.

HUNTER: A second test, another candle. The difference, everything in this room was made of natural fiber leather, cotton, wood. It took almost seven and a half minutes for the smoke alarm to go off. And another five minutes before the rest of the room caught fire.

Leather is heat resistant, flame resistant.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's much more resistant to the flame, obviously, than the synthetic materials.

HUNTER: We analyzed the two fires side by side with UL's fire safety expert Tom Chapin (ph).

When the smoke alarm went off in the synthetic room, the candle was still only smoldering on the leather coach in the room with natural materials. And remember how two minutes after the smoke alarm went off in the synthetic room, it was engulfed with so much fire, we had to clear out?

What does that mean to home owners?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have very little time to get out of this fire.

HUNTER: The bottom line, according to this test, if you have got a home filled with synthetic furniture, the experts say you have much less time to escape.

There are no mandatory fire safety standards for upholstered furniture, although safety advocates have been asking for them for decades.

JOHN DEAN, NATIONAL ASSOCIATE OF STATE FIRE MARSHALS: We have been waiting for more than a quarter century for someone here in Washington to answer our call for help.

HUNTER: The industry's largest trade group says the best solution at this time is to adopt a current voluntary standard as a mandatory national standard. The group, American Home Furnishings Alliance, says that compliance with what is known as the UFAC standard is in part responsible for the significant reduction in upholstered furniture fires over the last 20 years.

Fire marshals want national standards, like the ones California adopted decades ago, and are credited with a 25 percent drop in home fire deaths.

That's not without precedent. As of next July, the Consumer Products Safety Commission will require every mattress sold in the U.S. to be fire-safe. The CPSC says its staff is still researching and testing similar methods for upholstered furniture, but it could be years until a rule comes out.

ZAHN: So how fire resistant would the furniture actually be if this federal safety standard was approved? HUNTER: Well, who knows when they'll get a safety standard for furniture for flammability, but safety advocates tell me they want furniture to perform like the new fire-safe mattresses.

I have some video. Let's see what it looks like, OK? So this is an Underwriters Laboratory flammability test. It's a standard test, and this is actually a machine that hauls the fire onto the mattress. Both tested the same, but the big difference here is this is an old- style mattress. This is a mattress likely you're sleeping on. This is the new fire-safe mattress. Watch when they take the flame away. Take the flame away.

This old mattress, the one you're sleeping on, takes off. That's the fire getting to the foam.

Now, take a look at the new fire-safe mattress. The reason why it's fire-safe is that mattress is wrapped in a protective barrier that actually keeps the fire from getting to that very, very flammable foam. And so as of July 2007, you'll only be able to buy this mattress.

And what we're talking about here is time. Safety advocates want people to have more time to escape a fire in their living room, just like they're going to be getting more time to escape a fire in their bedroom.

ZAHN: I've never seen pictures like that that so clearly show the difference between the two.

HUNTER: Once they got the safety standard for bedding, the furniture industry is going to have to pay attention, because people say, hey, if you do that for beds, why can't you do that for my couch?

ZAHN: Thanks for bringing our attention to this, Greg. Appreciate it.

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