EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 8, 2012

Column: All working smoke detectors help save lives

Steven R. Buote
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — I am encouraging all residents and the media to seek education about the complex issue of smoke alarm technology. Last week, a popular national morning show, as well as local and national news, called into question the effectiveness of ionization smoke alarms. I, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs advocate that having both types of technology provides maximum protection against both flaming and smoldering fires.

The media segment was narrowly focused on research in the smoldering fire environment, where ionization alarms are well documented to react slower than photoelectric detectors. There was only a passing mention of the ionization detector’s performance in the flaming fire environment, where research shows it reacts faster than its counterpart. What those who sensationalize a portion of this type of research don’t realize is that half-information leads to unintended consequences that may cause people to remove what protection they may have in place. It’s frustrating that after so many years of proven effectiveness and progress on scientifically-valid research, we continue to see this type of coverage and lack of education on smoke alarms. We should be using research to project our energy forward, not backward.

It would be great if by tomorrow morning, we could wave a magic wand and have every home in the country protected with dual-sensor alarms. But the reality is that’s not going to happen. Our focus needs to be about education — not panic and fear tactics. Local fire departments are prepared to provide reliable facts and complete information, and promote the highest level of protection to their communities: a combination of ionization and photoelectric technology so that the home is protected against both smoldering and flaming fires.

Modern homes contain a large quantity of synthetic furnishings, which ignite and burn faster than natural materials such as wood and cotton. Escape time in flaming fires can be as little as three minutes, as compared to 17 minutes in tests conducted in the 1970s. Early smoke detection and alarm notification is needed so occupants can escape before conditions become untenable. Interconnecting smoke alarms allows for faster notification of occupants in other parts of the home.

Statistics show that the risk of dying is twice as high in a home without working smoke alarms than in a home with working smoke alarms.

There are two types of smoke detection technologies currently in widespread use, with additional technologies under development. There is a difference in activation times for the different sensing technologies (photoelectric or ionization), depending upon the type of fire development (fast-flaming fires versus smoldering fires).

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has carefully reviewed recent, credible research and does not find sufficient evidence to warrant a call to eliminate ionization technology. It does, however, recommend installation instructions, which state that ionization alarms need to be spaced farther away from fixed cooking appliances and steam producing sources, such as bathroom showers, than photoelectric alarms to avoid nuisance activations. While a properly installed and maintained alarm of either technology provides a critical baseline of protection, the IAFC strongly recommends the installation of at least one smoke alarm of each type or the installation of dual-sensor alarms, as long as the alarms are tested and listed by a nationally-recognized testing laboratory. Smoke alarms must also be located and spaced properly.

Currently available listed smoke alarms, regardless of the sensing technology, provide an acceptable level of protection if they are properly located, installed and maintained. It is vitally important to note that smoke alarms are only effective if they are maintained in operable condition.

Cooking is the leading cause of nuisance alarms. Users often disable smoke alarms that produce frequent unwanted alarms. The recommendation is to not locate smoke alarms in close proximity to cooking appliances.

Another study showed that 19 percent of the smoke alarms present in reported home fires had dead or discharged batteries. Most of these were probably smoke alarms using replaceable batteries (which should provide a minimum of one year of operation). Occupants are strongly encouraged to not disable smoke alarms and to replace batteries periodically (twice per year). Alternately, the public is encouraged to consider smoke alarms with long-life (nominal 10-year) non-replaceable lithium batteries. Furthermore, smoke alarms cannot last forever and must be replaced when they fail to respond to operability tests, or no later than 10 years from the marked date of manufacture. Homeowners are encouraged to upgrade their battery-operated alarms with approved hard-wired smoke alarms with battery backup.

Finally, this year, on Nov. 4, Daylight Savings Time will end, and we will all change our clocks back one hour. Once again, I, along with other area fire chiefs, remind everyone that when you change your clock, please remember to also change the batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Also, take this opportunity to check the age and type of your detectors. If they are 10 or more years old, or if they are not the correct type, please replace them.

For more information about fire safety, call your local department, or check the City of Methuen website and go to the Fire Department link.

Remember, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors do save lives!

Steven R. Buote is chief of the Methuen Fire Department.