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NIST Fire Research Seeks a Safer Night's Sleep for All

Engineers at the Building and Fire Research Laboratory (BFRL) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration, have developed a technique for testing the threat to a mattress from burning bed coverings such as sheets, blankets and comforters. The testing advance completes the first phase of a program, supported by the Sleep Products Safety Council, aimed at reducing hazards associated with the open-flame ignition of residential mattresses. All mattresses sold in the United States since 1973 already are resistant to ignition by cigarettes.

Thomas Ohlemiller, BFRL fire science engineer and project leader, said, "The essence of improving fire safety lies in the ability to measure fire performance accurately. Bedroom fires typically begin with the flaming ignition, not of the bed, but of the bed coverings. Fatalities occur after flashover, when all combustibles in a room burst into flames and the fire spreads rapidly throughout the house.

"Whether a fire reaches flashover depends on the rate of heat release of the combustibles. This new technique allows us to ascertain the separate contributions of burning bed coverings and mattresses to the overall rate of heat release," he said.

To quantify the intensity of a fire that a mattress might experience, the BFRL fire scientists burned 12 different combinations of bed coverings. They developed a unique infrared imaging technique to follow the spread of flames and heat intensity on camera and used the NIST-devised technique of oxygen consumption calorimetry to measure the rate of heat release. With the results, the BFRL staff created a two-propane burner device that simulates the shape and intensity of a bed covering fire on the top and side of a mattress. BFRL then tested four experimental mattress/boxspring designs with a variety of fire-retardant features to determine how well the burner-initiated fires mirrored those fires resulting from burning bed coverings.

Further BFRL research is under way to ascertain what reduction of fire losses, in terms of reduced fatalities, injuries, and property damage, can be expected from bed assemblies that achieve reduced rate of heat release. Researchers seek to develop a standard test that will allow manufacturers to measure the fire performance of different mattress/boxspring designs and component combinations in a bed covering-ignited fire.

A single copy of the report on this research, Flammability Assessment Methodology for Mattresses (NISTIR 6497), is available from NIST Public Inquiries by fax at (301) 926-1630 or electronic mail at inquiries [at] (inquiries[at]nist[dot]gov).

BFRL, one of eight NIST Measurement and Standards Laboratories, partners with its customers to provide the measurement technology, performance prediction methods and technical advances needed to enhance the competitiveness of U.S. industry, public safety, and environmental safety, and to assure the life cycle quality and economy of constructed facilities.

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST strengthens the U.S. economy and improves the quality of life by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards through four partnerships: the Measurement and Standards Laboratories, the Advanced Technology Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Baldrige National Quality Program.

Released July 17, 2000, Updated January 25, 2023