Fire Chiefs have called for safety standards for household furniture, some of which is so flammable it is turning homes into death traps.

They say many modern furnishings contain plastics and polyurethane foam, which burns rapidly and produces intense heat and a high level of toxic fumes.

The calls come after Cayden Beatty, 2, and brother Kahvan, 4, perished when a fire swept through their Tauranga home in minutes on Thursday morning.

National fire commander Mike Hall said yesterday that the Fire Service had been trying for years to get European standards introduced in New Zealand. Legislation would be needed to enforce such measures.

Mr Hall's call was echoed by other senior fire chiefs, who said there was no doubt that modern furnishings produced quicker, hotter fires.

Tauranga's top firefighter, Ron Devlin, who attended Thursday's blaze, said the standards for imported and manufactured furniture in New Zealand were "not particularly smart".

Natural fibre, largely replaced by polyurethane foam over the past few decades, did not produce the same heat and toxic vapour.

Mr Devlin said burning foam could produce highly poisonous gases within 45 seconds. In a closed room, "life would be gone" probably within 4 1/2 minutes.

Mr Hall said much of our furniture was made in countries where standards for manufacturing household equipment did not apply.

Fire safety integration manager Gary Talbot said the Fire Service wanted all new upholstered furniture and bedding to reach European and British standards, which required fillings and coverings to pass stringent flammability tests.

The requirements were generally met by using chemical flame retardants in the foam and in the back coating for covering fabrics.

Liz Morey, from the UK Furniture Industry Research Association, said upholstered furniture in Britain had to be filled with fire-resistant material or fire-resistant "interliners", which were subjected to rigorous "cigarette and match tests".

Mr Talbot said lower socio-economic groups were the most likely to have fires in their houses and have to cheaper furniture.

He said that in most of the Western world house fires were caused by people's behaviour.

In New Zealand, this was in spite of education on safety precautions such as smoke alarms, evacuation plans, supervision of children and care when cooking.

The Fire Service would now like to see mandatory low-cost sprinklers, starting in new and rental houses.

"It's a step further than smoke alarms. Sprinklers would save more lives and more property as well."

Whether a house was brick or timber, said Mr Talbot, "it is what you have inside the home that contributes to a fire".

Mr Talbot's words have been backed by other fire chiefs around the country.

Cliff Mears, assistant commander of the Auckland fire region, said there was no doubt modern furnishings produced quicker, hotter fires and mandatory standards for furnishings would reduce the number of fire fatalities over time.

The subject of a compulsory standards has not been discussed by the furniture industry since the last study in 2003.

Furniture Association of New Zealand executive director Marcia Dunnett said: "I think the general feeling was for the cost involved, particularly for people lower down the socio-economic chain."

She said the industry was open to discussing the issue but a cost-benefit analysis had to be done.

Fighting fire

New Zealand has no mandatory fire safety standards for furniture. Senior fire chiefs want tougher rules, such as those which apply in Britain. In that country:

Upholstered articles must have fire-resistant filling.

They must have passed a match resistance test or, in some cases (such as cotton or silk) be used with a fire-resistant interliner.

The combination of the covering and filling must pass a cigarette resistance test.

Items covered include beds, headboards, mattresses, futons, nursery furniture, cushions and pillows.- additional reporting: Louisa Cleave