On Jan. 9, 2022, 17 people, including nine children, were killed in a New York City apartment complex located in the Bronx after a malfunctioning space heater sparked a fire that spread across multiple floors. Following the tragedy, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said smoke was able to spread through the building “due to the door being open.” The city’s fire department also launched a social media campaign to spread awareness about the danger open doors can pose during a fire.
Can a closed door help limit the spread of fire and smoke?
- U.S. Fire Administration
- Fire Safety Research Institute
- National Fire Protection Association
- Dr. James Milke, professor and chair of the Department for Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland
- Ready.gov, a U.S. government public service campaign aimed at giving people the tools for emergency preparedness
- Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, U.S. Fire Administrator
Yes, closing doors can help limit the spread of fire and smoke.
WHAT WE FOUND
Fires need oxygen to burn, and closing doors helps keep oxygen contained in the room and away from the fire, say the U.S. Fire Administration and the Fire Safety Research Institute. Fires also need fuel, meaning anything like bedding or furniture can act as propellants for flames.
Closed doors also create a barrier between the fire and anyone still inside the structure, allowing crucial time to block smoke from entering the room through cracks and vents, and signal for help, says Dr. James Milke, professor and chair of the Department for Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland.
Milke told VERIFY that around 80% of house fire deaths in the last few decades have been because of smoke inhalation rather than burns. In addition to chemical and carbon monoxide exposure, smoke can also block visibility for those trying to flee.
“Smoke obscures visibility because you can't see through it,” Milke said. “So now, people are having to regroup along a stairway or a corner to try and find their way out, and that's going to impair their movement speed, which is going to reduce how fast they can walk and may create trip hazards and prolong their exposure to toxins.”
Milke said it’s unclear just how much time a closed door gives trapped residents in comparison to one that’s open because fires start and spread for a variety of reasons that vary case-by-case. The quality of the door can also play a role; basic, inexpensive wooden doors can offer protection, but sturdier builds can potentially give a person slightly more time depending on the materials used. Regardless, Milke says “any door closed is better than a fire door that's open.”
U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrelle emphasized the importance of limiting the amount of oxygen that reaches a fire and said people should also get in the habit of closing doors before they go to bed.
“I know of many fires that have occurred in high rises, where many people in the building were asleep, that can occur overnight, and they never even knew they happened,” Moore-Merrell said. “They don't spread as quickly if we can keep doors closed, so close your doors at night when you go to bed. Fire has to have air and so anything we do to slow down its oxygen source, will slow the fire. So yes, any barriers will buy time.”
The U.S. Fire Administration and Ready.gov, which provide emergency preparedness resources, agree: If you are stuck in a fire, feel the doorknobs and the door. If it’s hot, or if you see smoke coming around the door, leave it shut and use a secondary exit, like a window or stairwell.
Fire officials in New York said the Jan. 9 blaze started in a duplex on the second and third floors, and was able to spread after the apartment door was left open by residents trying to escape. A door to one of the stairwells in the apartment complex was also unable to shut, said NY Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro, cutting off that escape route as the fire spread. Our experts say when possible, make sure those doors are shut too.
“Another important door or set of doors would be doors into stairs and having the stairs be a principal means of exit for occupants out of a high-rise building,” Milke said. “It's important that the stairwell be passable and not be completely smoke clogs, and a door is an important first step in limiting how much smoke can get into that stair.”
If you do need to open a door, our experts say to do it slowly. “Be ready to shut it quickly if heavy smoke or fire is present,” says the U.S. Fire Administration.
If there is no second way out, the U.S Fire Administration says to close the door and cover vent and cracks around doors with cloth or tape to keep smoke out. Then call 911 or your fire department, give your location, and if possible, signal for help at the window with a light-colored cloth or a flashlight.
On its Escape Planning Tips site, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) says if you do have to crawl through smoke, get low and limit as much of your oxygen intake as possible.
Other practical tips include making a home escape plan, practicing it with those in your household and making sure your smoke alarm batteries are up to date. The NFPA advises you to check them every month. Alarms should be interconnected, meaning if one goes off, they all go off.
Moore-Merrell emphasized the importance of having smoke detectors on every floor of your home, not just in the gathering areas.
“We definitely want working smoke detectors in our homes, we want them in our bedrooms, in the hallway leading to your bedrooms, you want them in all levels of your home or an apartment building,” she said.
If you hear one go off, don’t hesitate. Our experts say it’s better to be safe than sorry. According to the NFPA, only 8% of people surveyed by the group said their first thought on hearing a smoke alarm would be to get out.
Fire preparedness can help increase your chances in an emergency, and Moore-Merrell says those emergencies happen more often than you might think – in the first 11 days of 2022, there have already been more than 125 fire fatalities in the United States.
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