Burn cells offer ‘outside-the-box’ fire safety lessons

In southern Ontario, Thorold Fire and Emergency Services comes up with new ways to educate residents

How long does it take for a fire to consume everything in a room?

Usually three minutes—and Thorold Fire and Emergency Services demonstrates it time again with a device called a burn cell.

This extremely effective visual aid—essentially a wood frame lined with drywall, furnished as a bedroom, kitchen or living room, and set alight by firefighters in a controlled environment—is now being used by the four fire stations in the southern Ontario community to demonstrate how quickly a fire can spread through a room in real time.

“The burn cell is mainly for public education, so that we have a visual prop to demonstrate to our residents of Thorold exactly how quickly the fire spreads and how easy it is for smoke alarms to provide early detection,” explains Vince Giovannini, fire prevention officer for the City of Thorold Fire and Emergency Services.

“The visual effect of the burn cell is more effective than using reading materials for public education,” he adds. “We can also use it as a training opportunity for our firefighters while we provide the demonstrations to practice advancing towards and using hose streams to extinguish the fire.”

This public education tool is being used throughout the year by Thorold firefighters at community events including Fire Prevention Week and a local Spring into Summer event.


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“We also demonstrate how quickly a fire can be minimized with sprinklers to prevent further spread. The cell is multifaceted as an educational tool for our residents and a training opportunity for firefighters,” says Giovannini.

“We allow it to get to the flashover stage—that’s when everything in the room will ignite—and as soon as that happens, we extinguish it.”

The drywall in the burn cell can be reused two or three times. After each demonstration, the cell is cleaned and repainted, and after the drywall becomes too deteriorated it is replaced to continue using the cell.

“Typically, the flashover stage can happen within three minutes in any typical home that we see today. When that’s happening in the burn cell, we talk about early warning and detection, preventing fires from happening, and suppression,” Giovannini says.

At Enbridge, safety is the foundation of everything we do. Since 2002, our Safe Community program has invested C$15.7 million (US$12.5 million) in equipment, training and education initiatives to thousands of North American emergency responder organizations. Our recent donation of $2,500 provided Thorold Fire and Emergency Services with the funds needed to build two burn cells.

“This is something we’ve been trying to do forever, and not everyone realizes just how significant $2,500 actually is for us. We would not have been able to get that money allocated to the project otherwise. We really can’t thank Enbridge enough,” says Giovannini.

(TOP PHOTO: A burn cell demonstration shows a room engulfed in flames, left, within two minutes of ignition, compared to a cell at right equipped with sprinklers. Burn cells serve as an educational tool for residents, and a training opportunity for firefighters.)