Almost all fire related deaths are usually from smoke inhalation not from direct burns.
Carbon Monoxide – The invisible danger
When a fire starts, oxygen is used and carbon monoxide is produced. The reduction in oxygen levels makes it difficult to breath. Carbon monoxide, when inhaled, causes the red blood cells to stop carrying oxygen to all parts of your body. It is impossible to see or smell carbon monoxide. The reduction of oxygen and increase in carbon monoxide very together quickly to cause asphyxiation.
So whenever a fire occurs, you will have no idea of how much carbon monoxide has been inhaled. This makes it the silent assassin in fires. This is one of the reasons to use a fire extinguisher from a distance before closing in.
For mild carbon monoxide poisoning, just breathing fresh air will do. But for very serious cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, the victim has to be under oxygen therapy at a proper facility.
Synthethic materials are more poisonous
Before the introduction of plastics and synthetic materials. The most common fuel of fires in homes was wood. This actually means that smoke in the 1900s was far less deadlier than smoke today.
Today, when synthetic materials burn, they can possibly give off a poison cocktail of fumes which includes carcinogens and even cyanide. There are many studies conducted on the materials of common household materials and the results led to the formation of new standards.
Classic furniture is safer
In the past, furniture was made predominantly of solid wood. This means it is harder to burn, slower to burn and produces less poison. Today’s furniture, unfortunately, is made mostly of wood glued together or even hydrocarbons which is a solid form of gasoline. This means it is possible for your sofa to almost instantly catch fire.
In 2020, Underwriter’s laboratory in America did a new comparison video so see which type of furnishing would burn faster. It is incredibly scary to see it happen in real life. The modern furnishings caught fire faster and were hotter.
Recognizing the immense danger of fires in modern homes, the European union in 1994, quickly introduced a number of standards to test for fire retardant ability in furniture. This includes EN 1021 for testing small fires on upholstered furniture and EN 597 for bed mattresses.
If you are wondering about your Ikea furniture, yes, I have checked for you. Most are indeed tested to EN 1021. The tags will almost always indicate tested to EN 1021.
Flashovers are super deadly
A flashover causes everything in the room to simultaneously ignite even if the fire has not reached it. The telltale sign of a flashover is thick black smoke in the ceiling.
Assuming that you have not fainted from smoke inhalation, the temperature at this point is so hot that you have less than 30seconds to run. You will live but suffer permanent fire damage to your lungs. The air is so hot that every breath taken in will cook your windpipe and lungs. The same video above has a demonstration of a flashover.
Smoke blocks visibility
Its impossible to see in thick black smoke. It causes confusion and makes it hard to find the exit. Standing or running will quickly cause you to take in a lot of smoke. Crawling is your best option if you are ever trapped in this unfortunate situation. This is why in hotel accommodation floors and boarding houses, SCDF has an extra requirement for the exit signage to be placed near ground level. When the room has lots of smoke, the exit signage at the top will be blocked. Only the exit signage at the bottom can be seen.
If you are ever trapped in a smoke logged building, remember to crawl. Even if it takes longer to reach the exit, you will have higher odds of survival than simply running through.
Crowds can be more dangerous than the fire
The station nightclub fire is one of the most deadliest fires in US history. It is so infamous that it has its own page on the NFPA website and the tragedy created a new list of fire code regulations. When the fire started, the crowd tried to escape and most died near the jammed exits. The main exit doors could only open inwards not outwards. Theoretically, it would have been possible to escape by reopening the doors inwards but the chaos and confusion caused the crowds to panic. With the crowd pushing from the back, it then became impossible to reopen the doors inwards. 58 bodies were found near that exit.
It only took 5minutes for the fire to engulf the entire building. Until today, the station nightclub is still used as a case study in many fire studies , fire simulations and research papers.
The key takeaway is to always ensure that you have a clear path of escape at crowded areas.