Your risk of dying in a fire may soon be much lower, thanks in part to the perseverance of Mark A. Dietenberger, a researcher at the University of Dayton. A half-dozen years ago, he set out to develop a computer program that could predict the potential fire hazard of furniture and other household combustibles. Few researchers thought it could be done, because the dynamics of fire remain largely a mystery.

Still, Dietenberger wanted to develop a practical tool that manufacturers could use to gauge fire hazards and develop safer goods. He designed his computer program to use data from a small-scale testing device called the cone calorimeter. Developed by Vytenis Babrauskas, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), the instrument is the first commercial system that simultaneously measures the parameters of a fire, from heat production and rate of spread to the output of smoke and other gases.

Dietenberger has unveiled the first version of his program, which predicts the fire hazard of different furniture designs and materials. The smoke production calculations need more work, he says. Still, "Mark's program is probably the most complete and competent model yet," says NIST's Babrauskas.

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