Lawrence-Douglas County

Fire Medical Department




Mr. David Corliss, City Manager



Division Chief James King



July 30, 2013



Upholstered Furniture Ordinance


Description of the Problem:

A traditional staple of independent collegiate living has been the overstuffed couch or chair on a porch or balcony. And many college graduates have fond memories centered around a favorite couch or chair for pre or post-game celebrations, getting acquainted with new interests, or just passing time. A drive through the Oread Neighborhood will reveal an abundance of porches replete with furniture for those occasions.  This furniture is often times left by a previous tenant, donated by a family member, or simply picked up from the curb by a frugal student. But this tradition is a growing fire problem at the national and local level that has significant property loss values, injury, and loss of life associated with it.


There are a number of fire and safety factors that come into play with upholstered porch furniture. Upholstered furniture presents a significant life/safety problem in that it often impedes or blocks exits and escape paths from a building. Two recent porch fires in Lawrence resulted in the occupants being forced to retreat to the upper floor to escape due to a furniture fueled fire and furniture obstructing the escape path through the main entrance/exit to the building. In regard to fire, upholstered furniture provides a very large fuel package that has rapid fire growth, and it promotes rapid vertical extension of fire. When the root cause is discarded smoking material or candles, these fires may smolder and go undetected for long periods of time. This results in early morning fires that go undetected before a large fire occurs and extends into the structure.


Fuel packages are rated by the speed with which they promote fire growth. This rate may be considered slow (600 seconds) to ultra-fast (75 seconds). This in turn is grounded in the Heat Release Rate. Upholstered couches with synthetic coverings and which are filled with urethane-based foams will produce 3,120 kW of heat energy within 215 seconds. When compared to combustibles, it is second only to a minivan that produces 2,405 kW of heat energy within 150 seconds.


Witnesses to a 2007 porch fire on Vermont Street in Lawrence related that upon discovery the fire was confined to the couch on the porch, but in the time it took to evacuate the house the fire extended into the front room and smoke conditions made it difficult to escape from the second floor.

Porch fires are aggravated by the presence of upholstered furniture, and the risk of a porch fire occurring is further increased by the presence of smoking and discarded smoking materials. Further compounding the issue is the use of alcohol. Of all campus fire-related deaths, alcohol was involved and contributed to the death of at least one victim in 59% of the incidents. In 21 cases the autopsy report indicated a blood alcohol level ranging from .12% to .304% with .23% being the median. In 4 recent porch fires in Lawrence, alcohol was used and contributed to poor actions and delayed reactions by occupants in the involved structures.


National Statistics:

Campus Firewatch has been tracking campus-related incidents since 2000. Between January 2000 and February 2012, 30 porch fires occurred with 9 of these fires causing 20 fatalities. Of the 30 fires, fire investigators documented the presence of couches in 11 cases, with 7 of these initiated by discarded smoking materials.


Local Statistics:

Since January 2007 the City of Lawrence has had 463 building fires. Ten of these fires occurred on a deck or porch and included upholstered furniture. The fire loss for these fires is in excess of $1.3 million dollars.


Community Responses Nationally:

Although the number of campus-related fire deaths is relatively low in comparison to all fire-related deaths, the number is rising. Thanks to the efforts of organizations such as the Center for Campus Fire Safety, the Minger Foundation, and the International Association of Fire Chief’s, communities are beginning to take note of the fire dangers and recognize that the demographic at risk is college students.


Many college communities have recognized the dangers of upholstered furniture on porches, and have addressed the problem through local ordinances. Unfortunately for some communities, the recognition occurred after suffering the loss of students to a fire.

Current and former Big 12 cities with ordinances include Boulder, CO; Lincoln, NE; Ames, IA; and Columbia, MO. Other notable communities include Durham, NC; Pittsburgh, PA; Ann Arbor, MI; East Lansing, MI and Bloomington, IN.



As a Big 12 community, the City of Lawrence fits within the at-risk demographic for college students and has encumbered sizeable property loss to porch fires involving upholstered furniture. The trend is increasing with 5 of the last 10 fires occurring within the past 2 years. Porch fires are preventable and those involving upholstered furniture can be minimized with the adoption of an ordinance making it unlawful to have upholstered furniture on porches, decks, or balconies as previously submitted as part of the Property Maintenance Code.