Debating fire safety in California

Has the incidence of home fires in California dropped exponentially over the last four years? If so, it hasn’t been reported.

We ask because the bureau that oversees fire regulations for home furnishings has drastically changed its tune on the state’s open flame regulations, in Technical Bulletin 117, for upholstered furniture. Since 2008, that bureau has gone from saying that it is important for furniture to meet an open flame test, which shows it can resist ignition from an open flame from matches, lighters and other objects, to proposing that the standard be eliminated altogether.

In fact, in 2008, the agency, called the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, wrote a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission saying, “The Bureau strongly believes that any national furniture flammability standard must address the typical scenario of open flame ignition in upholstered furniture.”

Since that time, the bureau has changed its name and its position on this issue. This week the Department of Consumer Affairs Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation, no doubt responding to political pressure, released a draft proposal to remove the open flame test. While this proposal is just a proposal that has to undergo a 45-day notice and comment period, Californians are still dangerously close to losing an important layer of fire protection that has been in place for over 35 years.

Open flame testing is especially important as statistics from the National Fire Protection Association show that open flame sources account for a significant number of upholstered furniture fires across the U.S. The revised standard will only require furniture to be tested for flammability from “smoldering” ignition sources, like cigarettes.

This revised state fire safety standard will be less protective of public safety. Given the potential of furniture fires to grow rapidly in size and cause injury, death and property loss, California’s leaders should have opted for an effective open flame test to address that risk.

This recent revision of the standard is the first time a state has moved backward when it comes to fire safety, and we wish California’s regulators had taken a more comprehensive approach to the state’s fire standards.

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