Posts Tagged ‘Fire and Explosion Investigation’

by: Jason A. Sutula


According to the 2014 Edition of NFPA 921 – Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, “The boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE) is the type of mechanical explosion that will be encountered most frequently by the fire investigator.” NPFA 921 provides a good basic description of how a BLEVE occurs. In general, a BLEVE event will begin when a container that is filled with a liquid undergoes an insult that results in the rupture of the container. The rupture can be caused either thermally or mechanically. In the thermal case, the heating of the container is responsible for the mode of failure. In the mechanical case, the container rupture is due to an impact or other event that causes a portion of the container to be breached. When the container is breached, the vapor of the liquid expands while the liquid becomes superheated. The superheating of the liquid results in the boiling of the liquid. Additionally, a pressure wave will be generated at the time of rupture and release, which can lead to the fragmentation of the container and the production of missiles. If the liquid in the container is flammable, a premixed system of fuel and air will develop and result in a fireball [Abbasi and Abbasi, 2007]. The Youtube video shown above is one that I show to my students to demonstrate the awesome power of the BLEVE.

One of the most famous BLEVE events took place in Crescent City, Illinois on Father’s Day, June 21, 1970. A freight train with 109 cars derailed. Ten of the rail cars were tank storage cars each carrying 34,000 gallons of liquefied propane gas. At the start of the derailment, one of the liquefied propane gas cars collided with another, tearing a large rupture into one of the other tanks. The result was a large initial fireball and subsequent sustained fire. Five of the liquefied propane gas cars achieved a BLEVE in the first four hours.

According to an excellent article by Robert Burke that was published by Firehouse in 2010 (, twenty-five homes and sixteen businesses were destroyed by fire. Three homes were destroyed by “flying” tank cars and numerous other homes received damage. More than $2 million in property damage occurred as a result of the derailment, fires and explosions along with six fire trucks [Burke, 2010].

It can be hard to put into perspective this amount of damage and how massive the fire and fireballs from the explosion were. After digging around on Youtube, I found the following video that shows actual footage of the Crescent City event. This particular video is narrated in Russian, but still clearly shows the magnitude of the event and the dangers of a BLEVE to both citizens and fire service personnel.



Abbasi and S. Abbasi, “The boiling liquid expanding vapour explosion (BLEVE): Mechanism, consequence assessment, management,” Journal of Hazardous Materials, no. 141, pp. 489-519, 2007.

Burke, 2010,

by: Jason A. Sutula

The (cliché?) saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” comes to mind as I write this short blog post. Mostly because I have the good fortune to know Samarra Khaja. Besides being family and a friend of mine, she is a highly talented and creative individual. While having her husband and family over for a visit recently, she spent some time working with me on a new branding image for the blog. The final result is below. If anyone who reads this blog has a need for logo & branding work, illustration, or photography (and several other creative services), I hope you will consider contacting SK. You can check out her work at

And now, the reveal:

Logo low res

Feel free to chime in on the design in the comment section. If there is enough interest, maybe I will make up some t-shirts and give them away in a contest!

by: Jason A. Sutula

Most people do not think about metals burning when they think about combustion and fire. Yet, metals can combust, especially when the metals are being used within an industrial process or themselves being processed at higher temperatures. Fortunately for the process safety, mining, and other industries, much research on metal combustion has been done over the years. One of the first studies on the burning of metal dusts was published in 1955 by Titman (Titman, 1955).

Titman examined small metal particles and the influence they had on the explosive mixtures of gases. Additionally, the metal dusts themselves were determined to have explosive properties. The hazards of metal dust combustion are similar in nature to those of organic dusts, which were discussed in a previous post of mine (The Creamer Canon). Since metals have a high affinity for oxygen and have the material property of high heats of oxidation, they are capable of producing high temperatures and the liberation of energy in very rapid fashion.

Another seminal, systematic study was conducted by Harrison and Yoffe in 1961 and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (Harrison and Yoffe, 1961). Harrison and Yoffe conducted their experiments using wires of various metals. These metals included aluminum, iron, magnesium, molybdenum, titanium, and zirconium.

Harrison and Yoffe demonstrated that the process of metal combustion was much more difficult to initiate when the metal was in wire form as opposed to dust. Their results indicated that the explosive hazard associated with the metal dusts were not as much of a concern with larger chunks of metal. Additionally, Harrison and Yoffe discovered that the mode of burning for each metal was determined by the relative melting and boiling points of the metal and the metal oxides (which is formed as the product of the combustion reaction).

Today’s embedded YouTube video selection demonstrates the energetic reaction produced by titanium powder burning. The reaction of the individuals involved is eerily similar to that of the Mythbusters crew as seen in the Creamer Canon video. In addition to providing a means to educate us through videos on the internet, combustible metals do have many other useful purposes. One such is the use of metal dusts to ensure a specific color in commercial firework displays. Titanium, Aluminum, and Magnesium powders are used to make a vibrant white color in the pyrotechnic stars. With that in mind, an argument can be made that the Chinese were actually the first researchers who began walking the path of understanding metal combustion. Have a happy and fire safe 4th of July!

Titman, H., Trans. Inst. Min. Engrs., Lond., 115, 1955.

Harrison, P.L., and Yoffe, A.D., “The Burning of Metals,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Vol. 261, No. 1306, pp. 357-370, 1961.

by: Adam Dodson

aviation fire investigationThis past summer I had the good fortune of being able to intern at Boeing Commercial Aircraft in Seattle, Washington. In addition to falling in love with the Pacific Northwest and landing a full time job as a MP&P Flammability Engineer after graduation, I was able to learn much about past aviation fire incidents. More specifically, I learned about how these accidents shaped the current state of aviation fire safety.

On July 17th 1996, a Boeing 747-131 Trans World Airlines flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New York. All 230 people on board were killed in the crash. There was an explosion in the plane’s center wing fuel tank, which caused an in-flight break up of the plane. The energy that caused the ignition of the fuel was determined to most likely have come from a short circuit in the wiring in the fuel quantity indication system. The center wing fuel tank was expected to have flammable liquid inside, but it was also expected to have no ignition sources. As a result of this accident, the FAA imposed additional regulations on fuel tanks. This included a requirement for inert gas systems in fuel tanks to reduce the flammability of possible fuel vapor/oxygen mixtures. Injecting inert gases such as Argon into fuel tanks was shown to reduce the flammability of the vapor mixtures.

On June 2nd 1983, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 Air Canada flight 797 experienced a lavatory fire while on its way from Dallas to Toronto. The lavatory circuit breakers had tripped, but were reset by the pilot, who thought nothing of it because this happened from time to time and was not considered an emergency. This resulted in an electrical fire breaking out near the lavatory. The flight crew attempted to flood the lavatory with a carbon dioxide extinguisher and thought the fire may have even been put out due to the lack of flames. The fire, however, was not extinguished and continued to grow and breach into the cabin. The plane made an emergency landing, but reached flashover conditions less than 90 seconds after the start of the evacuation. It is likely that incoming oxygen from opening the doors for escape helped the fire grow exponentially. 23 of the 41 passengers died from smoke inhalation and burns from the fire. Notable recommendations to the National Transportation Safety Board after the incident included expediting actions to require smoke detectors in lavatories, using advanced suppression agents such as Halon, emergency track lighting to the exits, and changing crew procedures to more aggressively pursue potential fires.

On August 19th 1980, a Lockheed L-1011-200 Tristar experienced a cargo fire shortly after takeoff from an unidentified source. It took the passengers who smelled smoke four minutes to warn the crew and pilot who then turned the plane around for an emergency landing. Emergency personnel did not board the aircraft for 23 minutes after the engines had been shut down because they had a difficult time getting the doors open. When emergency services did open the doors, they found that everyone on board had died of toxic smoke inhalation. It was assumed that most passengers were incapacitated on landing as all the main cabin doors were still shut and the aircraft was still pressurized. As a way to increase the time between flame ignition and evacuation of the airplane, new flammability tests were required as a result of this accident. The Oil Burner test, which tests flame and heat penetration through the cargo liner walls, is one such flammability test.

Finally, On May 11th 1996, a ValuJet Airlines DC-9-32 crashed into the everglades after departing from Miami airport. There was a fire that originated from an improperly contained chemical oxygen generator. This was stored in a class D cargo compartment that was not required to have fire detection or suppression. Rather, it relied on flame resistant materials and being airtight to minimize risk. Unfortunately, the chemical reaction in the oxygen generators was exothermic, meaning it produced oxygen and heat, which was enough to cause a fire that could burn through into other compartments. The fire grew and disabled the control cables in the back of the aircraft, giving the pilots no control. All 210 people on board died in the ensuing crash. Swampy conditions made it difficult for rescuers and the clean up crew to enter the area because of the water and threats like crocodiles and disease. This accident led to increased FAA regulations that required all class D cargo compartments to be upgraded to class C, meaning they were required to have fire detection and suppression systems installed, ventilation control, and a means to exclude smoke, flames, and extinguishing agent from crew areas.

As tragic as these events are, they allowed aircraft manufactures the opportunity to learn how to make aircraft more fire safe. Significant progress has been made in making aircraft more adequately protected from fire, which continues to this day. I am excited to be working toward continuing this trend when I graduate and get the opportunity to use my fire protection engineering degree to make aircraft even more fire safe.

by: Jason A. Sutula

Last week, I enjoyed an excellent presentation by a colleague on the explosive power of combustible dust. The presentation started off with several case studies throughout history that all told a similar tale. One of the most interesting cases was also one of the earliest on record: “The Account of a Violent Explosion which Happened in a Flour-Warehouse, at Turin, December the 14th, 1785, to which are added some Observations of Spontaneous Inflammations.” (Printed in its entirety in Eckhoff, 2003) Even more interesting was that this incident was investigated by a local official, Count Morozzo, who took the time to do as scientific of an investigation as was possible for his time. He even wrote an account of his findings.

According to Count Morozzo, at about 6:00 p.m. an explosion took place in the house of Mr. Giacomelli, a Baker in the city of Turin. The explosion was powerful enough to blow out the windows and window frames of the building, and produced a noise that was as loud as a “large cracker.” At the moment of the explosion, Count Morozzo reported that a very bright flame was observed that only lasted for a few seconds. Further investigation revealed that the “inflammation” had started in the flour warehouse, which was located in the rear of the structure over top of the bakery shop. A boy was stirring flour in this area while using the light from a lamp. As a result of the fire, the boy sustained burns to his face and hands, and his hair had been burned off.

Without the benefit of chemistry and modern fire and explosion dynamics, Count Morozzo was able to use logical arguments to piece together many of the components that led to the incident. He correctly deduced that the flour needed to be in the air (dust suspended in air), that atmospheric air was mixed with the flour (oxidizer), that the event was confined within a small room in the bakery (confinement of the dust cloud), and that the ignition occurred from the light next to the boy (heat source for ignition). These are four of the five components necessary for a dust explosion to occur. The remaining component is the dust itself (the fuel). Count Morozzo was unable to link this component to the event because fuel chemistry was not understood at the time, and he believed that “inflammable air” was confined within the flour and could be released without changing the makeup of the flour itself.

The good news is that the boy recovered from his injuries within a fortnight (14 days). The bad news is that even with Count Morozzo’s account, the process industry did not learn from these types of case studies until more recently in the modern era. It can also be argued that there is still plenty of work left to do today.

In an effort to demonstrate what that poor boy in Mr. Giacomelli’s Bakery must have experienced, take the time to watch the above YouTube video. Mythbusters produced this non-dairy creamer cannon demonstration for Season 07, Episode 03. It is the perfect visual for understanding the power of a dust explosion.

Eckhoff, Rolf, Dust Explosions in the Process Industries, Third Edition, Boston, Gulf Professional Publishing, 2003.

by: Noah Ryder and Jason Sutula

This topic was presented at the International Symposium on Fire Investigation Science and Technology (ISFI 2014, September 22-24), which took place at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD.


Over the last several years, a continued push to design and build “green or sustainable” buildings has accelerated throughout the United States.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the term “green building” is defined as “…the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.” The goal of green building construction is to reduce the overall impact of building and development on human health and the environment.

While the concept of green building construction and green materials is important from a global perspective to ensure minimal impact of growth and development on the environment, little thought has been given to the impact of green building construction and green materials on fire initiation or fire growth within green buildings or with green materials.  The risk of using these materials in building construction has been highlighted by a number of recent fires in which firefighters were killed or injured, property losses have been excessive, and unexpected fire damage has been observed.

In the event that a fire incident occurs within green building construction, the type and installation locations of the green materials can result in enhanced heat release rates and pathways of fire spread not typically observed with standard construction materials.  The composition, construction, and placement of green materials in newly constructed structures runs the risk of creating fire damage that may be misinterpreted by investigators after a fire incident.

Thus, a need exists to develop a methodology that can be used to evaluate and compare the potential fire growth risk associated with green materials.  This paper proposes the use of the cone calorimeter as a standard test method that would allow for relevant material properties and material performance data to be obtained on green materials.  Example data is presented and linked to the potential consequences of fire growth on green materials as well as the probability of a fire occurring or spreading.  A simple formulation is then proposed that can be used to compare the relative performance of green materials and the risk associated with them.  Finally, the example data is extrapolated within a limited example of a post-fire scene reconstruction to assess resulting damage patterns in the context of green materials.


The modern green building movement has roots from the rapid increase in oil prices that occurred in the 1970’s in the U.S.[i]  A byproduct of the gas crisis was increased funding in research to improve energy efficiency in all aspects of building development.  This included research into construction methods, more efficient energy consuming devices, and green materials.1 While the concept of green building and green materials is important from a global perspective to ensure minimal impact of growth and development on the environment, little research has been conducted on the impact of green construction and green materials on the potential risk associated with fire initiation or growth within green construction or with green materials.  In the event that a fire does occur, green materials may release significantly increased quantities of carbon dioxide above standard material.  Thus, the sustainability of the structure is called into question.

The goals of this paper are to summarize some of the current fire data available for green materials, present various test methods available for assessing the flammability hazard of green materials, and offer a potential methodology for an effective comparison of the relative risk associated with the materials.

Risk Associated with Green Materials

The risk associated with green materials has been highlighted by a number of recent fires in which firefighters were killed or injured.  These fires most often occurred in newer construction where engineered I-joists were used and the floors collapsed in short order.  This has caused a number of fire departments and municipalities to call for an increase in understanding of how green materials perform under fire conditions in order to determine whether it is safe for fire fighters to enter a structure involved in fire.

Risk is an inherent part of life and takes on a special role when examined from the perspective of fire.  Risk must be identified, assessed, and mitigated to the greatest extent possible within a reasonable cost.  This is true whether a process is being assessed within a chemical plant or if a green material is being evaluated for sale in the commercial market.  To quantify it, risk is typically presented as[ii]

Risk = (Consequence of Incident) x (Frequency at which Incident Occurs)

The process of assessing the risk begins with identifying hazards associated with the process or the product.2  For example, if a green material candidate is being evaluated for sale in the commercial market, the testing can be done to determine if the material is combustible.  Additionally, if a particular material is a combustible hazard, standardized and custom testing can be used to determine environmental conditions that could drive the green material to ignition.

Once various hazards are identified with a particular candidate green material, the risk equation can be used to evaluate the magnitude of the risk.  This is the second step of the risk analysis process and is referred to as Risk Assessment.2  Available statistics related to the incidence rate of fire in the U.S. show that fire is a rare event.  Unfortunately, the consequences associated with a fire event can be astronomical when accounting for loss of life, injuries, and potential property losses.

Once the first two steps have been adequately addressed, Risk Management can be implemented in an effort mitigate the analyzed risk.2  When taken in the context of a candidate green material for commercial sale, risk management can include the determination of a test or suite of tests that the material can undergo to determine its relative hazard in comparison with other non-green materials in the marketplace.

Very little research has been done specifically on the risk associated with green materials or even on their performance from a fire perspective; however, FM Global has produced a report that addresses the potential risk to green materials due to fire and the impact on total carbon emissions.  Unfortunately, this does not directly address issues related to safety of the occupants and first responders.

Cone Calorimeter

One of the more prevalent bench-scale test apparatus that exists for determining the ignition and flammability parameters of a particular material is the Cone Calorimeter.  A test program using the Cone Calorimeter is typically conducted using a series of samples of the investigated material (i.e., square shape with four inch sides) that are exposed to different heat fluxes in the range 1-50 kW/m2.  Figure 1 shows an overall picture of the Cone Calorimeter in a laboratory setting.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Overall View of the Cone Calorimeter Apparatus

The theory behind the testing is based on an ignition model for a liquid as adapted to a solid combustible fuel.  Ignition in solid bodies can be physically modeled as a function of ignition temperature, as described by Quintiere.[iii]  The theoretical approach rigorously applies to liquids, but can be easily extended to decomposing solids, assuming that decomposition chemical reactions do not cause any significant variation of the surface temperature.  This approximation is considered to be reasonable for most materials.3  The underlying concept is that the surface temperature is sufficient to generate enough vapors to reach the lower flammable limit (e.g., the flash point).  Achieving the lower flammable limit allows a piloted ignition of the pre-mixed flame, which leads to a sustained diffusion flame.  As an additional assumption, the surface temperature is equal to the auto-ignition temperature of the vapor mixture at the surface.  This concept may also be applied to thermally thick materials.[iv]

When conducting each test, the time to ignition is recorded for every heat flux as the time interval between initial exposure of the sample and its ignition; however, the igniter is activated almost immediately after the insertion of the sample.  The critical heat flux is then determined through 1-2 kW/m2 steps, starting from 10 kW/m2.  The threshold is given by the heat flux to which the sample is exposed and has not undergone ignition after a 30-minute exposure.  A typical curve reporting the time to ignition as a function of imposed heat flux is shown in Figure 2.

figure 2

 Figure 2 – Time to Ignition as a Function of Heat Flux for ABS Thermoplastic

 Figure 2 shows a common thermoplastic ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) chosen as a representative example.  Very low times to ignition (i.e., less than one minute) have been measured for heat fluxes in the range 30-50 kW/m2.  The critical heat flux was evaluated as 9.5 kW/m2 because no ignition was observed at 9 kW/m2, while a time to ignition of 670 s was measured at 10 kW/m2.

Once a test is used to determine a measure of flammability, the thermal inertia of a material can be determined.  The last step before the ultimate evaluation of the thermal inertia is to determine the b parameter, which pertains to the relation between normalized heat flux and the square root of time to ignition.  This function is presented in Figure 3 for the considered case.

figure 3

 Figure 3 – Normalized Heat Flux as a Function of Square Root of Time to Ignition

As shown in Figure 3, the data points collapse onto a line, which leads to a straightforward evaluation of b as its slope.  The heat flux as a function of time to ignition presented in Figure 3 only serves as a way to linearize the dependence of ignition on the imposed heat flux, while the physical trend is actually shown in Figure 2.

Using the above formulation, the k(rho)c thermophysical property is calculated to be equal to 0.16 kW2 m-4 °C-2 s. Using a similar analysis and test data, thermophysical properties can be determine for any green or non-green material.


Based on the definition of green materials, there are a large number of materials that are currently being used, or considered for use, in green building projects.  Some of these materials include bamboo, straw, Linoleum, sheep wool, panels made from paper flakes, seagrass, cork, coconut, lignin, and wood fiber plates.  The available test data on these materials is limited, but some data does exist in the scientific literature.

One of the byproducts of commercial paper production is lignin.  This byproduct has been deemed by industry as a natural, renewable, and biodegradable material,[vi] which fits the definition of a green material.  Due to its ability to char when exposed to heat or flame, it is mixed with other components to create hybrid materials.[vi]  In one particular study,[vi] lignin was blended with styrene–acrylonitrile–butadiene copolymer (ABS) to produce a hybrid material.  Cone calorimetry testing was performed on the resulting hybrid and was compared with standard ABS.  The results of the testing indicated that the addition of the lignin reduced the peak heat release rate of the sample and slowed the combustion process.  While these results were promising, the data indicated that the peak heat release remained at an extremely high value, 526 kW/m2, when subjected to an external heat flux of 35 kW/m2.  This provides a good example of a green material in development that attempts to reduce the flammability hazard of a building material currently in use, but must be carefully evaluated to determine the actual benefit from a fire risk perspective.

Another potential green material that has been tested in the literature is Linoleum.  Linoleum is most commonly used as a flooring material.  In a study designed to investigate the flammability response of various flooring materials,[vii] Linoleum was compared with particle board, rubber, PVC, and polypropylene using the cone calorimeter.  The results indicated that the Linoleum floor covering behaved moderately from a flammability perspective when compared to the particle board (i.e., peak heat release rate of 247 kW/m2) and rubber (i.e., peak heat release rate of 754 kW/m2).  Linoleum produced a peak heat release rate of 400 kW/m2.[vii]  These values were obtained with an external heat flux of 50 kW/m2.  From a relative analysis, Linoleum appears to be a better actor from a flammability perspective than rubber when comparing this data and a worse actor than particle board.  The data from this type of study could be used to better assess the fire spread and growth rate of Linoleum when analyzed during a post-fire investigation.

In cone calorimeter testing conducted at the University of Maryland, a number of green materials were tested and a summary of the results is presented below.  In some cases, the green materials performed well in the cone calorimeter (e.g., high critical flux for ignition values and low peak and total heat release rate values), while others performed very poorly.  This clearly shows that it is important to test individual products in order to better understand their fire growth and spread performance.

Bamboo Flooring

Bamboo flooring produced a critical flux for ignition of 13 kW/m2, a higher value than that associated with many typical wood flooring products.[viii]  Bamboo is being used in an increasing number of products because of how rapidly it can be grown, and, thus, it is deemed to be a sustainable material.  The material appears to be comparable to or to have a slightly better fire performance than other comparable products such as oak flooring.  Figure 4 depicts the data for the critical heat flux of Bamboo Flooring.

figure 4

 Figure 4 – Heat Flux versus Ignition Time for Bamboo Flooring

Foam Spray Insulation

Several different varieties of spray-in foam insulation were tested and each yielded the same basic results.  The fire retardant foam did not appear to be significantly different in behavior to the non-fire retardant varieties.  All three foams that were tested performed identically.  Figure 5 shows the data for the critical heat flux for the various spray-in foams.

figure 5

 Figure 5 – Heat Flux versus Ignition Time for Spray-in Foam Insulation

As shown in Figure 5, the foam insulation achieved ignition at very low heat incident heat fluxes (< 10 kW/m2) and did this in less than two minutes of exposure.  In comparison, cellulose insulation will tend to smolder and not actively flame and fiberglass insulation is typically noncombustible, though the paper facing may ignite.

Data gaps that current exist must be filled with a sound testing protocol that can determine the relative potential for fire growth and spread of new and current green building materials.  The above-presented results were generated using the cone calorimeter.  This test apparatus is just one of several test apparatuses or methodologies that could be considered for developing a complete understanding of the fire performance of green building materials.  Other test methodologies could include both bench-scale and full-scale testing.


The main issue associated with full-scale testing is the cost of the test.  It is much more expensive to conduct testing on large scales for many reasons.  A larger amount of sample material is needed, an increase in testing personnel may be required, and the support facilities may be significantly larger.  These and many other factors can increase the cost substantially over small, bench-scale testing.

Additionally, a larger test does not guarantee better results.  A classic example of this is through analysis using ASTM E84 – Standard Test Method for Surface Burning Characteristics of Building Materials, which is also more commonly referred to as the Steiner Tunnel Test.  This particular test was developed prior to the common use of thermoplastics as building materials.  Samples are placed on the “ceiling” of the test apparatus and ignited from one side to observe the time of flame spread.  Between various woods and rigid combustibles, the test may provide a fair assessment of their relative flammability.  Unfortunately, the test becomes completely inappropriate for materials that deform and may melt or fall down during the test.  Depending on the material, the use of the ASTM E 84 test can be of very little value in comparing fire flammability test performance of a particular material with actual performance of the material in the field.

The known deficiencies with using the Steiner Tunnel Test have been well-documented.  Thus, other large-scale tests have been put forth as possible alternatives.  One in particular is the ISO 9705 Room Corner Test.  Fire conditions that develop in this particular test are much more in-line with the characteristics of real fires.

Multiple studies have been conducted examining a potential link between small bench-scale testing such as the cone calorimeter and large-scale tests such as the Room Corner Test.  Two studies in particular by Hansen and Hovde[ix] and Quintiere and Lian[x] provided strong analytical data and concluded that the cone calorimeter test was sufficient to predict the results of the larger-scale Room Corner Test.  Based on the known deficiencies of some large-scale tests and literature studies that suggest the small-scale results of the cone calorimeter can predict the useful results of the ISO 9705 Room Corner Test, the cone calorimeter can be considered to be a simple, small-scale test that can be adequately used to assess the flammability properties and relative fire risk of all combustible materials, including green building materials.


As technology changes and new building materials are introduced, it is important to be able to appropriately identify the fire risk that is associated with them.  This requires that a standard approach to risk be adopted so that the risk can be appropriately addressed.  While large-scale testing is often thought of as the best way to characterize a materials behavior in a “true” fire scenario, it may be more useful and practical to utilize a smaller-scale test method, such as the Cone Calorimeter to obtain ignition properties and heat release data.  The data derived from these small standardized tests materials can be indexed against each other and can be used to quantitatively predict large-scale performance.

The risk that green materials pose to structures and to personnel is no different than standard materials with regards to the variables of interest, namely ignition characteristics and heat release.  The main difference is that of performance.  The key variables that can be explored to quantify the risk that a material poses are:

  • Time to ignition (as a function of heat flux)
  • Thermal inertia (as derived from the cone calorimeter or other device)
  • Peak heat release rate
  • Total heat release rate
  • Products of combustion (yield and species)

Risk to Occupants

The risk to occupants posed by green materials is most clearly brought to light by documents detailing the ease of ignition, heat release rate, and toxic products of combustion.  As occupants need to be made aware as early as possible regarding a fire, any reduction in available egress time will be critical.  When looking at the difference in a green foam insulation product vs. cellulose or fiber insulation product, the differences can be examined simply using a standard t2 fire growth.  The foam insulation, even when treated with a fire retardant as shown above, will ignite readily, will tend to expand toward the fire, and, in general, can be treated as a fast or ultrafast fire, whereas the more traditional insulation materials may be non-combustible or slow fire growth.

The other major area of risk to occupants is the toxic products of combustion.  As additional plastics are used in products and building materials, the toxicity of the smoke is increasing.  Thus, in addition to the potential increase in the ease of ignition and the increased heat release rates, toxic smoke can more readily affect occupants as they attempt to egress.

Lastly, the mere presence of these products has been shown to potentially alter a firefighter’s decision making process regarding when and if they should enter a home or structure.[xi]  The concern is that if the materials are in use it may be an unacceptable risk for the firefighters to enter, and, in turn, this affects the ability of the occupant to be rescued.

Risk to First Responders

It has been well-documented[xi],[xii] in the news and in other locations that new lightweight building materials and insulation products produce an elevated level of risk to first responders.  Insulation products have created fires that have developed more rapidly, and structural flooring components have a reduced ability to withstand a fire.  This has led to an increased number of fire deaths and injuries from first responders and a national push by several groups[xiii] to further examine the use of green materials and to ensure that their response to fire is well understood.

Michigan saw two fires involving manufactured OSB I-joists that resulted in firefighter deaths within a short period of time.  These deaths occurred largely due to the failure of the flooring, which resulted in the firefighters falling through the floor a short time after the fire initiation and into an actively burning basement.11  Similar incidents have occurred in Wisconsin, Tennessee and elsewhere around the country.  In Pennsylvania, these and other incidents have caused a change in the law that essentially requires dimensional lumber to be used in new construction or requires that gypsum board be installed as a fire barrier below the OSB joists.

In full-scale testing comparing standard dimensional lumber with an engineered floor assembly, the engineered floor assembly collapsed within 15 minutes while the dimensional lumber was still structurally sound for a considerable period afterward.[xiv]

Risk to a Structure

The risk to a structure largely rests with the ease of ignition and the fire growth.  Part of making a building green and energy efficient is ensuring that there is a tight seal to minimize energy losses.  In the process, it also creates an ideal condition for containing the heat during a fire.

There have been a number of high profile fires in which the building materials played a key role, most recently the 2009 Monte Carlo fire in Las Vegas, the Borgata Water Club fire in Atlantic City in 2007, and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel fire in Beijing in 2009.  These are of particular note because each of these fires involved the use of foam materials on the exterior of the building, primarily for energy efficiency reasons.  Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) are being used with increasing frequency and their use is increasing the fire load and combustibility of structures when compared to other materials.  In addition, lightweight concrete construction and other forms of construction are susceptible to early structural collapse during a fire.

There have also been an increasing number of fires associated with the spontaneous ignition of spray foam insulation during the installation process.  Since the curing process is exothermic and if the chemical mixture or application is incorrect, a fire can occur during or after the installation.[xv]  In this case, the product not only is a contributor to the fuel load, but can act as the ignition source and is often located in an area that is not covered by automatic fire suppression.


There have been several studies that have attempted to characterize the risk by using scaled data to correlate to large-scale results.[ix],[x],[xvi]  These have each offered a perspective on how this can be done.  The method outlined in Quintiere and Lian[x] shows promise as an effective way to characterize the risks associated with materials.

The method uses data derived from the cone calorimeter to predict time to flashover in the ISO 9705 compartment and has shown good success with a range of 54 different materials.  The methodology relies on four parameters:

  • Heat Release parameter, obtained from the heat release rate measurement
  • Thermal Response parameter, obtained from the slope of the time to ignition1/2 results
  • Critical Heat Flux, minimum heat flux at which ignition occurs
  • Available Energy parameter, the total energy released by the material during the test

These properties can be used to generate a curve to predict the measured time to flashover.  The empirical correlation that results from this analysis is:

equation 7

The results show that this equation can predict the phenomena of flashover fairly well.  Thus, the propensity for a material to cause flashover can be used as a quantitative means for evaluating the risk the material poses from a fire behavior standpoint.  If a material has the ability to produce flashover conditions in a shorter time period than other materials, then it can be viewed as increasing the risk.


The push to include green materials in building construction has already resulted in an impact in fire investigation.  Knowledge of the fire risk and fire growth properties of green building materials will continue to take on importance in the field.  Due to the lightweight nature of the fuels, rapid fire spread will destroy physical evidence and can mimic the rapidity of burn that is commonly seen with liquid accelerants.

One example of this was the August 13, 2006 fire in Green Bay, Wisconsin.[xvii]  The fire began in the basement of a single family residential home.  Fire department personnel made entry into the structure and within minutes, the first floor collapsed into the basement, injuring one fire fighter and resulting in the death of another.  Post-fire analysis identified the construction of the floor slab to be lightweight pre-fabricated wooden I-beams.  The resulting damage would have been difficult to account for if fire department personnel had not been on the scene early enough, and the fire had been allowed to continue to burn without intervention.  Due to the rapidly burning nature of the lightweight pre-fabricated joists, entire portions of a residential structure could be lost during a fire.  This large extent of damage can make origin determination difficult and could result in the misinterpretation of the damage patterns.  Consideration must be given to the materials involved at a fire scene to ensure proper interpretation of the fire growth and spread.


Green materials are being introduced into the marketplace at a rapid pace, often with minimal fire testing.  When tests are required, they are often poor predictors of how the materials will respond under real fire conditions or at a larger-scale.  As buildings become more elaborate and move toward increasing sustainability through the use of green materials, the materials utilized may present an increased fire risk.  There needs to be a methodology that can be used to evaluate and compare the potential risk associated with a particular green material.  The cone calorimeter is a simple standard test that allows for relevant material properties and material performance data to be obtained.  This data pertains to both the potential consequences of a fire as well as the probability of one occurring or spreading through the ignition delay curve.  Quintiere and Lian[x] and others have provided several good attempts at using the cone data to predict full-scale fire behavior.  The simple formulation can be used to compare the relative performance of materials and, indirectly, the risk associated with them.  This could be used as a means of regulating what the minimum performance characteristics of a material need to be in order to be acceptable.  In addition, it provides flexibility as the measure is not based on a single material property but on a range of material parameters.  Finally, understanding and quantifying the risk associated with green materials will allow for better understanding of the resulting damage patterns at a fire scene when green materials have been involved.

[i] “Green Building,” [Online]. [Accessed: 22-Dec.-2011].

[ii] N. Hyatt, Guidelines for process hazards analysis, hazards identification & risk analysis. CRC Press,  p. 474., (2003).

[iii] J. Quintiere, “A theoretical basis for flammability properties,” Fire and Materials, (2006).

[iv] J. Troitzsch, International plastics flammability handbook, p. 500, (1983).

[v] ASTM 1321 Standard Test Method for Determining Material Ignition and Flame Spread Properties.

[vi] P. Song, Z. Cao, S. Fu, Z. Fang, Q. Wu, and J. Ye, “Thermal degradation and flame retardancy properties of ABS/lignin: Effects of lignin content and reactive compatibilization,” Thermochimica Acta, vol. 518, no. 1, pp. 59–65, (2011).

[vii] P. Johansson and J. Axelsson, “The influence of floor materials in room fires,” Brandforsk Project 300-061.

[viii] M. Spearpoint, “Predicting the piloted ignition of wood in the cone calorimeter using an integral model — effect of species, grain orientation and heat flux,” Fire Safety Journal, (2001).

[ix] A. S. Hansen and P. J. Hovde, “Prediction of time to flashover in the ISO 9705 room corner test based on cone calorimeter test results,” Fire and Materials, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 77–86, (2002).

[x] J. Quintiere and D. Lian, “Inherent flammability parameters—Room corner test application,” Fire and Materials, vol. 33, pp. 377–393, (2009).

[xi] “Lightweight Building Materials Cause Greater Fire Risk – Milwaukee News Story – WISN Milwaukee.”

[xii] “ LIVE: Massachusetts Fires Tied to Spray Foam Incite Debate by Tristan Roberts on 07/14/2011,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 23-Dec.-2011].

[xiii] J. Tidwell and J. Murphy, “Bridging the Gap: Fire Safety and Green Buildings,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 23-Dec.-2011].

[xiv] “Common Building Material Poses Deadly Threat To Firefighters – Milwaukee News Story – WISN Milwaukee,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 23-Dec.-2011].

[xv] “ LIVE: Fire Risks Not Limited to Spray-Foam Insulation by Tristan Roberts on 11/01/2011,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 23-Dec.-2011].

[xvi] R. Petrella, “The Assessment of Full-Scale Fire Hazards from Cone Calorimeter Data,” Journal of Fire Sciences, (1994).

[xvii] [Accessed: 01-August-2014].

by: Michael J. Gollner, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Fire Protection Engineering
Affiliate Assistant Professor, Dept. of Mechanical Engineering
University of Maryland, College Park 

John Gibbins aerial of fire around Scripps Ranch area.

A new course, “Wildland Fires: Science and Applications” will be taught for the first time in Fall, 2014 here at the University of Maryland, College Park in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering by Prof. Michael Gollner. This course will present an introduction to the global problem of wildland fires with an overview of the social, political and environmental related issues. The course includes detailed coverage of the science, technology and applications used to predict, prevent and suppress wildland fires. Some specific topics covered will include relevant codes and standards, remote sensing, fire spread theory, risk mapping, research instrumentation, suppression, ignition sources and extreme fire behavior. Engineering analyses in many of these areas, as well as specific coverage of fire protection design in the wildland-urban interface will also be covered.

Students taking the course are expected to have an undergraduate-level understanding of calculus, fluid dynamics, heat transfer and thermodynamics; however students without these requirements showing a strong interest are encouraged to contact the instructor ( for permission to take the course.

The course will be taught as a dual senior-level undergraduate course, ENFP 489W and graduate course, ENFP 629W.

See a flyer for the course along with an outline of topics covered here: ENFP489W-629W Outline and Promotion

(Re-blogged with permission from Michael J. Gollner, Ph.D.