Smoke inhalation and You.
February 3, 2007 7:15 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone point me to a reference of how long the average person would last before succumbing to smoke inhalation in a burning building? (By succumbing I mean passing out). 2 scenarios: making a run for the exit, and making a crawl for the exit.

The question is how to judge whether it would be smart to try to make it to an exit or stay put.
posted by GleepGlop to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You're best bet to get out of a burning building is to stay as low to the ground as you possibly can. There are two reasons for this. First off, all of the dangerously heated gases are at the top portion of the room, and secondly, the top half of the room is completely covered in smoke whereas the bottom half is generally clear.

I'm a vol. firefighter and we are quite clearly told in training to never stand up in a burning building. When you're inside of a burning house, it's amazing to be able to physically see the line of heat that separates the room.

As far as how long someone would last before succumbing to smoke inhalation, let's just say not too long at all. In fact, if they were upright and walking around with the room filled with smoke, I doubt they'd make it to the exit at all.
posted by 913 at 7:44 PM on February 3, 2007

Also: wouldn't it depend on the stuff that's burning? Plastics and other toxic-vapor-producing materials might have more of an impact on your immediate survival than smoke produced from non-toxic materials.
posted by aberrant at 7:53 PM on February 3, 2007

Well, how long can the average person hold their breath while exerting themselves either running or crawling?
I'd agree with 913 - and add about 4- 10 seconds after they draw a breath while running, better odds of getting a cleaner breath while crawling. Not smart to stay put.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:12 PM on February 3, 2007

I'm not an expert, but I would certainly pay attention to what the firefighter has to say - they KNOW. I had a personal experience with a house fire - started in the furnace room in the basement; it was astonishing how very quickly the whole house (which is very open & large) filled with incredibly toxic smoke in just seconds. And we were able to contain the fire to the furnace room - say 8'x8'x5'; really not that huge of a fire - we saved the house. The kicker was the PVC plumbing pipe & wiring that burned not the wood. I was able to get outside fairly quickly - but I had smoke inhalation & my lungs burned for days after. It made me a believer. Get down & get the hell out.
posted by ranchgirl7 at 9:48 PM on February 3, 2007

Crawl. People also say to put a wet cloth over your mouth, but I would imagine that's only if you have to crawl a long way and it doesn't significantly add to the time it'll take you to get to the exit. You could probably pull your shirt up over your mouth and nose, if you can get it to stay and still crawl fast. Mr. Firefighter? What say you?
posted by IndigoRain at 9:58 PM on February 3, 2007

If you have a wet cloth available, go for it. If not, a shirt, sock, or a beenie baby will suffice. Back in the day, firefighters used to grow long beards that they would stuff in their mouths when they went into burning structures to filter out the smoke. Of course, that can't be done these days due to the toxic fumes in plastics and what not.

One thing I thought I'd mention. If you're trapped in a room make as much noise as you possibly can. Searching for someone in a smoke filled, dark, and unfamiliar place is never easy. Also, make sure to stay in an open area in the room, don't hide in a closet or under your bed. Think of the firefighters as being blind, if you're able, direct them as much as you can.
posted by 913 at 10:25 PM on February 3, 2007

that can't be done these days

(Plus of course nowadays the SCBA won't fit properly with a beard.)

Just to reinforce the message that you don't want even a single lungful of "smoke": Smoke Inhalation Injury, from one of the myriad of firehouse magazines.

Part of a firefighter's protective gear (PPE) is a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), i.e., an air tank and mask. Protocol dictates that if we're trapped inside a structure and run out of air, we keep the mask on until we lose consciousness. (I've tried this. A horrible feeling.) See, it's possible that thirty seconds after you black out, the backup squad will have reached you; but just one lungful of superheated air or corrosive burning-beanbag-chair nasties, and even if they do get you out you won't have much left in the way of lungs.

In other words: yeah, what 913 said.
posted by goetter at 1:56 AM on February 4, 2007

Good answers all around, thanks. When I become a reclusive billionaire I'll have to put some gas masks and IR goggles in my fallout shelter.
posted by GleepGlop at 8:42 AM on February 4, 2007

I was in a closed space with a burning pop tart once, and was completely blown away with how quickly I lost the ability to stand, even given that I could see through the smoke. My lungs knew something was screwed up and crapped out in what felt like less than a minute.
posted by tiamat at 1:06 PM on February 4, 2007

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