Fire Prevention & Protection, Firefighter Training, Fireground Safety

Smoke Alarms Still a Great Life-Saver

By Tom Kiurski

Recently, the Columbus Dispatch (Ohio) newspaper did a study on smoke alarms. It has found that the residents it studied are far more likely to be injured in fires when smoke alarms are present and working than when they don’t have any smoke alarms at all. Readers of this newspaper could make a dangerous assumption – that they they are more likely to be injured by having smoke alarms. So why bother buying, installing, testing and replacing batteries on them?

The report “America Burning” states that the fire death rate in the late 1960s (prior to widespread smoke alarm use) was around 12,000 per year in the United States. Compare that to the fire death rates we see now, running at about 3,500 per year, and you can see we have gone down dramatically. While we can attribute this to a number of things, widespread smoke alarm usage is a key element. Statistics today indicate that about 93 percent of U. S. homes have smoke alarms, and people are doing a better job of maintaining them.

We can guess that many of those residents injured in the study group would be dead if they had no smoke alarms. We know that most residential fires happen at night, and most fire deaths occur in residences. The question becomes: should you have smoke alarms and risk injury, or not have any and risk a higher probability of death?

Any firefighter should use this research to anticipate questions at his or her next speaking engagement. If confronted with the research in Columbus, how would you respond to these statistics? A good, solid understanding of smoke alarm technology and a firm stance on assistance from fire safety products will be included in the answer.

Smoke alarms can be purchased with recorders in them, so users can make their own safety message for their families; some models have lights on them, to show the way out; and others can tested when a flashlight beam crosses their testing paths. Smoke alarms can be single-station battery operated units, hard wired into homes’ electrical systems, or a combination of both. Basic models start in the $5 range, and many fire departments have giveaway programs for residents that need them.

When speaking to groups about smoke alarms, remember it is recommended that units be tested monthly and batteries changed at least once per year. Smoke alarms should be replaced after ten years of service, and you should have a minimum of one smoke alarm per floor in the house, with one outside of the sleeping areas. Units should be listed by a testing agency, such as UL, and instructions should be followed for installation.

Yes, citizens can get hurt in structure fires – they happen to be dangerous places. I believe they would like the early warning that a working smoke alarm gives, to allow themselves the additional time to get out safely.

Tom Kiurski is a lieutenant, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999) is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.