By Joseph O'Leary
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Firefighters will spend the next two weeks setting homes ablaze on a small island in New York Harbor for one purpose: Saving lives.
Eighteen abandoned townhouses on New York City's Governor's Island, formerly housing for members of the Coast Guard, have been turned into a setting for roaring fires in experiments aimed to develop new strategies firefighters can use to save lives.
In one on Tuesday, a match was lit near newspaper in the basement of a fully-furnished home. Within five minutes thick black smoke began to billow from the rear door; before ten minutes had passed, dark red flames licked around the basement windows.
Firefighters gradually broke open the windows to change air flow, seeing how the flames reacted to different ventilation. Under real-life circumstances, air is added as soon as possible from immediately opening roofs, windows and doors.
"They are bringing the lab out to the firefighters," said Dan Madryzkowsky, a fire protection engineer from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which conducted the tests with the FDNY and Underwriters Laboratories, a non-profit group.
The idea behind this and other experiments taking place on Governor's Island is to find flaws in fire-fighting techniques that, in many cases, haven't changed in decades.
At the same time, modern households have undergone dramatic shifts, with organic materials, such as cotton and feathers, largely replaced by more affordable synthetic materials introduced in the 1970s.
With the change came a disturbing trend, said Fire Department deputy assistant chief Robert Maynes. The new materials have shortened the time it takes a house to burn, and cause fire to burn even hotter. Where more natural homes would take 17 to 20 minutes to burn, modern homes can be engulfed in five minutes.
As a result, Maynes said, an increase in burns and fatalities started to show up in fire department statistics in 1983.
The researchers performing the experiments on Governor's Island hope that each home, outfitted with more than 100 sensors which measure oxygen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, airflow through the houses and heat levels, would give them valuable information in fighting fires.
Though an official report is set to be released in a year, important information could be known minutes after the tests and would be taught as soon as possible, said Fire Department commissioner Salvatore Cassano.
Similar experiments have been conducted elsewhere, but those are done at testing facilities where houses are built in laboratories and conditions such as wind and temperature are controlled. The Governor's Island homes, by contrast, offered a natural environment in everyday homes, allowing researchers to test with more real-life variables.
"This is where science meets the streets," said John Drengenberg, Consumer Safety Director for Underwriters Laboratories.
(Reporting By Joseph O'Leary; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Andrew Hay)