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Photograph of large open room with fire engineers standing around a large fire test.
Credit: © Earl Zubkoff

Trial by Fire: A Look at NIST Fire Testing Through the Years

Fire testing may have started some 2.5 million years ago when one of our ancestors stuck his hand into the first flame and “scientifically” determined that the temperature was too hot to bear. Since that primitive beginning, humans have been on an unending quest to understand, measure and exploit the behavior of fire — and most importantly, to improve our ability to protect life and property from its ravages. Fire testing at NIST, a staple of the agency’s research since the early 1900s, has helped provide much of the data, insights and knowledge demanded by that pursuit. Find out more about NIST's fire research and the National Fire Research Laboratory.


Black and white photo of office buildings burning in 1928.
Credit: NIST Digital Archives

NIST conducted what may have been America’s first full-scale fire test when researchers burned down two condemned buildings in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 1928. Data from this experiment, along with previous work by pioneer fire researcher Simon H. Ingberg, eventually led to uniform fire resistance standards for buildings.


Black and white photograph of a underground shelters on fire.
Credit: NIST Digital Archives

Gas and flames erupt nearly 100 meters (300 feet) from a NIST concrete bunker during a 1940 test to define safe and effective storage practices for flammable nitrocellulose films. A vault inside the bunker simulated a typical storeroom, with the charred film reels left behind after the burn proving that fire posed a safety, as well as a preservation, hazard.


Black and white photo of post fire aluminum bedroom replica of SS united States ship in 1950. To the right and left there are burned bed frames and in the middle a burned dresser.
Credit: NIST Digital Archives

To evaluate the fire resistance of all-aluminum staterooms proposed for the luxury liner SS United States, NIST set a full-scale replica ablaze in 1950. The test — designed to simulate the experience of three women traveling to Europe who ignited spilled whiskey with a dropped cigarette — proved that aluminum could prevent flames from spreading for a short time.


Black and white photo of a young man hunched over sitting on a chair next to a large white box that is burning a wood fire for an experiment.
Credit: NIST Digital Archives

Cross piles of wood were burned and studied in this 1961 experiment to model the development and growth of fires in full-size buildings.


Black and white photo of bus on fire surrounded by a firemen carrying a water hose in 1975.
Credit: NIST Digital Archives

In 1975, NIST conducted three full-scale tests of fire and smoke behavior in a Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Transit Authority bus after a series of suspected arson incidents.


Black and white photo of a man standing in front of large piece of metal equipment shaped like a funnel. It reaches from the floor to the ceiling.
Credit: NIST

A fire engineer adjusts instrumentation before a 1983 experiment using the furniture calorimeter, a NIST-developed device that measured the rate at which heat was released from burning sofas, chairs and other office and residential furnishings.


Color photograph of man wearing red shirt and bluejeans floating inside space shuttle. The space shuttle silver walls are covered in yellow pipes and red buttons from floor to ceiling.
Credit: NASA

NIST engineer Greg Linteris flew aboard two space shuttle missions in 1997 to study soot formation, the shapes of flames, and combustion of chemical droplets in microgravity.


Black and white photo of man working on two computer screens in 1989. The screen to the left is small and long and the screen to the right is large and boxy, both show correlating data.
Credit: NIST Digital Archives

Fire engineer Walter W. Jones working in 1989 on HAZARD I, one of NIST’s first computer programs for simulating fire and smoke behavior in a variety of buildings and structures. NIST continues to advance the science of fire and smoke modeling, providing tools that are used worldwide.


A fire engineer wearing black NIST jumpsuit and yellow hard hat is kneeling next to a tv screen displaying multiple colors of the yellow and orange fire burning on a chair in the background.
Credit: © Robert Rathe

To enhance fire safety aboard Amtrak trains, NIST has studied the burning behavior of materials used for passenger seating since the 1970s. In this 1997 test, a NIST engineer uses an infrared camera to map fire spread.


Color photo of white structure meant to replicate and office on fire.
Credit: NIST

Recreations of tragic fires, including this 2003 simulation of a burning office in one of the World Trade Center towers after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, have helped NIST researchers recommend changes to building and fire codes that improve occupant safety.


Color photograph of before and after dorm room fire. First picture is a brick building with flames coming through windows. Second picture is inside room covered in black residue.
Credit: NIST

A 2010 NIST burn in a dormitory scheduled for demolition at the University of Arkansas addressed three areas of fire safety in which NIST has been a leader for decades: evaluating smoke and fire detector performance, demonstrating the value of sprinklers, and defining dorm room fire hazards.


Closeup of firefighter face mask covered in char from fire burn. The rest of the uniform is also black, but in tact.
Credit: NIST

Results of NIST burn studies and laboratory tests in 2012 helped prompt a safety alert about heat-caused damage to faceplate lenses used by firefighters. NIST later developed a rigorous test for certifying lenses as resistant to the hazard.


Photograph of large open room with fire engineers standing around a large fire test.
Credit: © Earl Zubkoff

Opened in 2015, NIST’s National Fire Research Laboratory is a unique experimental facility for understanding fire behavior and structural response to fire. NFRL researchers can study entire homes, offices, bridges and other structures up to 9 meters (30 feet) in height, as well as the impact of fire on new construction materials and methods.


A Christmas tree is engulfed in flames. To the left is a chair. In front is a coffee table, rug and fishbowl. To the right is a tall bookshelf. There are 3 wrapped presents under the tree. A timer reads 8:04 seconds.
Credit: F. Webber/NIST

In 2017, NIST demonstrated how an overly dry Christmas tree could be consumed by flames in less than a minute, turning a lovely Yuletide setting into a deadly menace.


Want to learn more? See news and updates about NIST's fire research.