Posts Tagged ‘Human Behavior in Fire’

by: Nathan Pascale


When analyzing the effect of toxicants, there are a few trains of thought that we must consider. First, there are the biological effects. How does the human body process the harmful byproducts that are be produced during a fire and how effectively can it do so? This perspective looks exclusively from an organic point of view, only taking into account functions within the body. The second consideration is for behavioral influences. At a micro scale level, this could be linked to the biological effects as far as how the toxicants can debilitate the brain’s capacity to function normally. However, in taking a big picture point of view this can simply be defined as changes in an individual’s decision making and the actions they take as a result of the toxicants. Finally, in the grand scheme of a fire scenario, we can look at how these biological and behavioral variations can affect the overall tenability analysis of a particular building.

As mentioned previously, the main concerns when determining the tenability of the building are the time to impair one’s ability to escape in a timely manner and the time to incapacitation. The time to impair can be correlated to the behavioral consequences of toxicants in a fire. While the panic theory has been largely debunked, a normal individual is still expected to require time to perceive, recognize, respond, and move to a safe area, and this is all without the effect of toxicants. When we introduce that extra layer of complexity, the question of how much time is enough time becomes much harder to answer. There are many factors that vary on an individual basis that can affect the way they react to the problem at hand, one of them being age.

While irritant gases are important to consider in any fire scenario, their effect is very difficult to quantify due to differing opinions in the field and overall lack of data. Thus, for the sake of this argument, I will focus on narcotic gases. Unlike irritant gases, the lethal and incapacitating effects of narcotic gases are much more accessible and quantifiable through research on animal exposure as well as posthumous studies of fatal fires. Narcotic gases act primarily by attacking the nervous system and to a lesser extent the cardiovascular system. The result is a lethargic state, coupled with headache, nausea, or poor physical coordination, followed quickly by incapacitation or death once the body can no longer compensate for the lack of oxygen being supplied to the brain.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a toxicant present as a byproduct of all fires. Many deaths have occurred due to CO inhalation where the victims are asleep or inactive for a duration of time before becoming aware of the danger. A model developed by Professor David Purser in 2008 showed that active subjects with greater respiratory minute volume (RMV) rates were much more susceptible to the effects of CO than subjects at rest. When an individual is remote from a room of origin that has undergone flashover, toxicants are inhaled while in a sedentary state until the danger is recognized. At this moment, the exposed individual tries to escape, at which point the effects of the increased respirations an environment laden with CO begin to cause severe impairment or incapacitation.

Elderly individuals are also more likely than the average adult or child to have conditions such as asthma or coronary artery disease. A study conducted by the EPA in 2000 determined that the tenability limit of carboxyhemoglobin (the amount of CO in your blood) for an individual with coronary artery disease is only 5%, while the limit for an average adult is 30% (Purser 2008) and 25% for a child (Klees 1985). Additionally, according to an SEFS report, elderly individuals are expected to spend more time in their bedroom then adults and children. The fact that elderly people are more vulnerable due to physical condition, preexisting health concerns, and that they spend more time in the bedroom environment when exposed to fire conditions, we can conclude that elderly individuals comprise the age group at the greatest risk of death and injury when faced with narcotic gases.

In conclusion, there is evidence to prove a correlation between the effects of toxicity and age, but not enough to reliably quantify what those effects are. Preexisting illnesses, physical conditions, familiarity with the building, and susceptibility to toxicants are just a few of the factors that have to be taken into account during a tenability analysis. Unfortunately, due to the harmful nature of toxicants, experimental studies on humans are considered unethical and there is not a large pool of data to analyze for effects on past fire victims. Thus, with the information currently available, the elderly population can be considered most at-risk in a toxicant exposure event, followed by children, and then adults. Consequently, it is my hope that code committees and the fire protection community as a whole takes a closer look at these factors and evaluates the possibility of increasing the required safe egress time, whether it be by decreasing the walking speed, increasing recognition time, or otherwise, for those occupancies and buildings that shelter a large number of elderly people or children.


Purser, D.A., “The Effects of Fire Products on Escape Capability in Primates and Human Fire Victims,” International Association for Fire Safety Science, 2008.

Klees, M., Heremans, M., and Dougan, S. “Psychological sequelae to carbon monoxide intoxication in the child,” Sci. Tot. Environ., 1985.

Gann, R.G., J.D. Averill, K.M. Butler, W.W. Jones, G.W. Mulholland, J.L. Neviaser, T.J. Ohlemiller, R.D. Peacock, P.A. Reneke, and J.R. Hall Jr., “International Study of the Sublethal Effects of Fire Smoke on Survivability and Health (SEFS): Phase I Final Report,” National Institute of Standards and Technology, August 2001.

by: Michael Harris

There are many methods that fire protection engineers can use to calculate egress time. One popular method taught is hand calculations that are based off of fluid dynamics (these can be done on a computer also). Unfortunately, this method does not take into account human behavior. There are many factors in a fire that can affect human behavior and egress time. One big factor is the toxic smoke produced by a fire.

Tadahisa Jin and Tokiyoshi Yamada (Jin and Yamada, conducted an experiment in Tokyo, Japan on the effects of human behavior in smoked filled corridors. This study attempted to produce as accurate results as possible by using 31 human subjects, aged 20 to 51, as oppose to animal subjects that previous smoke inhalation studies had used. The experiment was done in a straight corridor that was 11 m long, 2.5 m wide, and 1.2 m high. Certain stopping points were arranged in the corridor where the occupants were meant to stop and answer a simple arithmetic question. While in the corridor, the subjects were exposed to different levels of smoke and radiated heat. The inside of the corridor was also illuminated with fluorescent lamps.

To protect the subjects, a 16 layered towel was positioned on their nose and mouth. This provided a filtration of approximately 90% of the smoke from the environment. Additionally, the subjects had no prior knowledge of the corridor before, but were told it was a straight corridor with an end and that they could turn around at any point.

The study resulted in 17 of the subjects reaching the end of the corridor. Fourteen of the subjects had to turn around before reaching the end. An additional finding was that the subjects answered the arithmetic question incorrectly at a higher rate when the smoke density was higher. This correlation was almost linear. Finally, the subjects’ correct answer rate increased as they walked farther into the corridor. The experimenters concluded that this effect was due to the subjects becoming more emotionally stable as they acclimated to the controlled environment.

Jin and Yamada’s study resulted in valuable information that helped to better understand human behavior in a toxic gas environment. Close to half of the occupants decided the emotional toll was too high and decided to reverse direction and retreat out of the smoke filled corridor. It is worth noting that none of the subjects were exposed to a true fire scenario, considering that they only had to walk through a straight corridor and were protected from the toxicity of the smoke. A reasonable inference would be to assume that more of the subjects would have turned around in the corridor if they experienced pain due to breathing in the toxic smoke.

One of the most important findings of the study is that occupants will change their path due to the presence of smoke. This action of changing path can greatly increase egress time, and put the occupants at higher risk of injury or even fatality. Furthermore, the subjects’ cognitive ability decreased with heavier smoke. This decrease was strictly due to the emotional stress of the scenario. In an actual fire, occupants of the structure may lose cognitive ability to the point of not being able to find a safe path out.

The silver lining in this experiment is that the subjects’ cognitive ability was found to increase over time as they acclimated to the environmental conditions. Unfortunately, this observation may be inaccurate due to the limitations of the experiment. The possibility exists in an actual fire that the occupants will be exposed to an increasing dose of toxicants. Furthermore, in many structures, an occupant will not have as direct of an egress path as utilized in the experiment.

It is clear from the Jin and Yamada study that simply using fluid dynamics to calculate the egress time is not enough. Fortunately, many fire protection engineers will add a safety factor to help account for limitations such as human behavior. My hope is that future research will eventually give our community better insight into human behavior in fire, and allow for a more quantitative approach to the design of fire safe egress.

Jin, Tadahisa, and Tokiyoshi Yamada, “Experimental Study of Human Behavior in Smoke Filled Corridors.” Fire Safety Science-Proceedings of The Second International Symposium, pp. 511-519, 1989.