Scattered local news stations, mostly under the Sinclair Broadcast Group umbrella, recently aired reports on a flawed Underwriters Laboratories (UL) study on home fires. WJLA (ABC7) Washington, DC joined in with a story aired on March 1. While reporter Kimberly Suiters did include some balance at the end of her piece, and by posting materials from the Vinyl Siding Institute at the end of her web article, she continued the trend of missing the mark on fire safety. Stories like these should focus on preventing fires, not re-hashing a decade-old tragedy.
Buried in these segments, or not mentioned at all, is that fact that the UL study was flawed and rejected by UL’s own advisory working group. Another main aspect of any story on fire safety should be that less than four percent of home fires start on the exterior – according to the National Fire Protection Association. Reporters should present consumers with the facts. In discussions about fire safety, it is important to talk about ways to prevent fires and limit the spread, not to scare consumers and taint their views on products that meet and exceed fire safety standards.
It does beg the question of whether Sinclair Broadcast Group is circulating this highly misleading template to their affiliates, considering most of the stories are copycats and ignore our publicly addressed concerns.
Here’s what consumers, and reporters covering this issue, need to know:
- The 9 year old fire in Loudoun County, VA is a very specific case and not a good example of exterior fires. The footage of this fire used in the WJLA piece and others, likely because it captivating footage of a fire. But the official report on this fire found that a number of factors were to blame for the results of the incident. At least Suiters mentioned the fire was from 2008, unlike other reporters, but she still used the same scare-tactics, misleading viewers at the same time.
- UL ignored its own advisory group’s concerns about the study. Before undertaking their study, UL convened an advisory group of industry experts, which expressed many concerns about the test plan and tone of the proposed work. UL dismissed those concerns and did not consult with the group through the rest of the program. As a result, the study published by UL reflects flawed test methodology and inappropriate conclusions.
- UL has not responded to these concerns and continues to make the study available online. The technical deficiencies in the UL study were so egregious that representatives of UL’s working group signed a joint letter in February, 2016 urging UL to promptly remove the study and related wall assembly training videos from UL’s website, UL’s YouTube channel and other UL forums to avoid misleading the public. UL dismissed the working group’s request to have the flawed study taken down. Remarkably, UL never even responded to the facts presented by the working group regarding the discredited study.
- The UL study ignores real world scenarios and its conclusions are invalid and cannot be trusted. For example, a fire was replicated by putting a grill directly against the side of the house. Unlikely scenario since the grill would not even be able to open in that position.
- No residential exterior cladding is designed to be a barrier to fire. WJLA conveyed the impression that vinyl siding should act as a fire barrier to underlying insulation, but that is not the intended role of vinyl siding, wood or any residential exterior cladding. Viewers are right to wonder why stations would selectively hold vinyl siding to this high standard – and fail to point out that wood exterior cladding would likely ignite and burn before the vinyl siding, and likely before any underlying material that the vinyl siding might expose. Moreover, wood sheathing is one of the materials that may be found underneath siding, but such material is already exposed when the house is clad with wood.
- The fact is, residential fires rarely start outside the structure, and claddings of any type are seldom a factor. According to the National Fire Protection Association, only four percent of all residential fires start on the outside of the structure, but do not necessarily originate with the exterior cladding. Fewer than two percent of house fires originate with the exterior wall surface, and fewer than three percent of all fires go beyond the structure of origin. The most common areas that produce fires are the kitchen, bedroom, and living room, and most fires (69 percent) never leave the room of origin.
- To contain residential fires, efforts should focus on limiting the spread of fire to critical areas. This includes eave construction, for example, which should be reexamined to slow a fire’s acceleration from the exterior wall to the attic. One approach would be to “harden” the interface between the exterior wall and the attic so that fire cannot spread so readily into the attic. This would be consistent with the overall fire protection strategy for combustible buildings, which is to compartmentalize fire so that it cannot readily spread to different areas of the building, while still providing necessary functions such as ventilation.