OTTAWA -- It's never been more dangerous to be a firefighter.
Our homes and the stuff inside them are nearly six times more flammable than they were 30 years ago.
What that means for firefighters is the amount of time they can safely be inside a house on fire has dropped from about 17 minutes to three minutes or less.
That's when flashover happens — the moment when a room or building is fully engulfed in flames.
"It's true,” said Ottawa Fire spokesman Marc Messier of the unprecedented danger facing firefighters. "It's mostly because of the products being used in construction and furniture fabrication."
He said unlike 30 years ago, when homes, furniture and appliances were made of solid wood and steel, modern day versions are made with glue, plastics and synthetic materials.
Such synthetics not only burn faster but produce carcinogenic emissions as they burn.
"One of the biggest examples is floor joists," said Messier, who himself dabbles in home renovations.
"They used to be 2x8s and 2x10s, and now we're looking at composite materials which for the most part are made of wood particles, mixed in with glue. They're cheaper, which is probably why the industry is using these products."
Messier said many composite materials are stronger than wood — until a fire breaks out.
"Then everything changes. These things burn quicker."
In fact, he points to the findings of a National Research Council study which shows modern homes fail up to 60% faster under fire conditions compared to older homes.
He said most modern homes will collapse in a fire between 6½ and 12 minutes of the smoke alarm going off, leaving firefighters trapped.
"This is why we tell people to practise a fire escape plan," said Messier.
"There's so little time to get out — three minutes from the time the alarm goes off until flashover."
Sometimes less — one video courtesy of the American- based National Institute of Safety Technology shows flashover happening within 40 seconds after a Christmas tree caught fire in a controlled experiment.
Messier said one way to turn back the clock on flashover times is by installing sprinkler systems in homes.
He said these systems cost about $3,000 for a 2,000-sq.-ft. home, but when used in conjunction with smoke alarms, will reduce the likelihood of death by 82%.
There have been 49 people killed in fires in Ottawa since 2001.
“If there were 49 murders in 10 years, don't you think there'd be an uproar?" asked Messier.