NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — New York firefighters are busy this week setting fires — on purpose, to save lives.

On Tuesday, members of the Fire Department of New York responded to a roaring blaze that they themselves started, as part of a national research project into how to battle fires more effectively.

“The fire is ignited,” announced Steve Kerber, an expert from Chicago-based Underwriters Laboratory working with the FDNY on a series of so-called “live burns” on Governors Island, off Manhattan’s south tip.

WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell With More On The Story

It started in the cellar of a row house, with a remote electric switch igniting a match on a sofa.

Dozens of firefighters were ready, their hoses crisscrossing the grass on this island that has a clear view of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.

Suddenly, acrid black smoke soared into the blue New York sky, occasionally enveloping spectators and firefighters. The crackling of the roaring flames coming out windows mingled with the sound of glass being shattered as firefighters broke their way in.

A gulp of the fumes by a firefighter can cause death by smoke inhalation.

“We’re asking, `What we were doing in the past, is it correct, or do we need to change?”’ said FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano. “Firefighting has changed dramatically in recent years, and we’re going to save many lives because of our experimentation.”

The need to develop new tactics is urgent, he said.

“Fires today burn hotter and faster than they ever did,” said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at Underwriter, whose encircled “UL” initials appear on many tested electrical household items.

The reason is that furnishings in modern homes are made of highly inflammable synthetic materials, he said. And modern construction is lighter, using insulation that traps heat in a fire.

While firefighters had an average of 17 minutes to get in and out of a building about three decades ago, they now have only 4 or 5 minutes, Drengenberg said. “They have less time to get out, and more get burned,” said FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief Bob Maynes.

For the past decade at their Northbrook, Ill., headquarters, UL researchers have been setting fires in laboratory settings.

On Governors Island, with three fires being set a day for six days, “this is where science meets the streets,” Drengenberg said.

This week, the island teemed with FDNY firefighters, engines and other equipment, plus scientists overseeing the experiments.

The flames are decimating row homes that once housed members of the Coast Guard, and are now decommissioned along with the whole island; they would have been demolished anyway to make room for a public park.

On Tuesday, a gentle breeze blew in from the harbor — a key element in fire-extinguishing tactics. An open door or window can create ventilation that fans the flames, killing trapped residents in upstairs bedrooms.

“It’s all about the ventilation — about open doors and windows,” Drengenberg said.

The “live burns” mark the first time the FDNY is conducting such research in a real-life setting, along with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Trust for Governors Island.

The findings are being studied at fire departments across the country, but the FDNY is the largest one, with more than 10,000 firefighters.

On Tuesday, some of them were on the Governors Island ferry to stage the blaze. They broke into the house, but never entered, since there was no one inside for whom to risk lives.

Each of the old Coast Guard houses is wired with more than 100 sensors measuring heat, oxygen flow and carbon monoxide, plus waterproof cameras registering how the smoke and flames move. In the living rooms, a wire dangled from the ceiling between velveteen orange sofas purchased from hotel liquidators.

The only changing factor in the units is which doors and windows are opened as the fire spreads.

The data are recorded on computers in an adjacent building, for later analysis.

What experts find is that traditional tactics may not be the best for saving lives. For instance, quickly running a ladder to the roof and opening it may suck in oxygen that fans the flames, killing or critically injuring survivors waiting to be rescued.

Instead, on Tuesday, the flames in the basement were doused before any window was smashed open. Suddenly, the dark smoke turned white — a sign of contact with water.

That left the upper part of the two-story house cooler. And if there were people there, they’d have a better chance of being rescued, said Steve Kerber, a UL research engineer in firefighter gear.

He said the lesson was simple: Apply water from the outside to cool off the inside, before firefighters enter.

“Sometimes, I used to go into these kinds of fires five times a night,” Maynes said. “Don’t break the windows before you apply water, and go up and close the doors _ that’s what increases the chance of a family staying alive.”

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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