Detector Law Can Affect Old Homes
Many municipalities require the installation of smoke detectors in new homes and apartments, but Farmers Branch, Texas, a Dallas suburb, has passed a smoke detector ordinance that is retroactive under certain circumstances.
It requires the installation of smoke detectors not only in all new residential occupancies, but also in existing homes upon a chance of occupancy or ownership, or after repairs or additions exceeding $500 in value.
Full coverage in 10 years
Apartment owners are required to have smoke detectors installed in 20 percent of their apartment units by the end of the first year and in an additional 20 percent each succeeding year, so that by 1980, all apartments in Farmers Branch will be protected by smoke detectors.
“Based on current installation figures, this safety device hopefully will be found in every home within the next 10 years,” predicted Farmers Branch Fire Chief Bob Yager, the man who waged an intensive campaign for the new ordinance.
“Most of the other smoke detector ordinances that I am familiar with fail to take into consideration the need for smoke detector installation in the many older homes and residences that are, in fact, more susceptible to fire damage and loss of life than future ones,” Yager explained.
After researching the concept of putting smoke detectors in existing homes, Yager and Building Official Tom Scales went before the city council. They asked for a retroactive smoke detector ordinance based on a certificate of occupancy clause and an alteration in the issuance of building permits.
The recommended wording stipulated that whenever a change in residence occurs in single-family housing, the new occupant must get a certificate of occupancy. To secure one, the new resident must install an approved smoke detector in 30 days.
“A certificate of occupancy is the key to our smoke detector ordinance, and without it, the city would lack the necessary mechanics to have a smoke detector placed in every home in Farmers Branch,” Yager explained.
The city council approved the ordinance on February 3,1975. The effective date of the ordinance was delayed 90 days to allow time to inform the public about the need and value of smoke detectors. A slide show on the ordinance’s requirements was created by the Farmers Branch Fire Department and this was presented publicly innumerable times for several weeks.
Woman dies in fire
On May 3, the day the smoke detector ordinance was to go into effect, an elderly woman was found dead at a house fire in the city. The cause of death was smoke inhalation.
The need for the new ordinance could not have been stressed more dramatically, so efforts to inform the citizens about smoke detectors were heightened.
Just seven months later, the fire department’s actions paid off when a family of four was saved by a $35 smoke detector last December. The parents and two children had moved into an older rented house shortly after the smoke detector ordinance was passed. Because of the certificate of occupancy clause, the landlord was required to install a smoke detector.
“Without it, we wouldn’t have woke up. We’d be dead now—all of us, my husband, myself and both of our children,” said the mother, Mrs. Susan Foster. “Thank God we had it.
“I hadn’t smelled any smoke before the buzzer went off,” Mrs. Foster said. “Finally, we realized what it was and jumped up and turned on the lights. It was hard to believe. The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see the bed.”
The flames had not broken out yet, but the house was dense with smoke when fire companies arrived. Fire officers commented that without the smoke detector, the Foster family could have been overcome in their sleep.
The incident triggered enthusiasm and interest not only from Farmers Branch citizens, but from residents and fire departments from other Dallas suburbs. Requests for information and appointments to see the smoke detector slide show program flooded the dispatcher’s office.
Permanent wiring required
So far, smoke detectors have been installed in 12 percent of the city’s 7000 homes and in 20 percent of the 1550 apartments.
Some smoke detectors operate from an electrical wall outlet, while others receive power from cadmium or mercury batteries. The Farmers Branch ordinance requires permanent wiring to an electrical circuit.
Plug-in and battery-operated smoke detectors are banned, Yager explained, because “we want to reduce the chance of a plug being accidentally pulled from the socket and the risk of forgetting to replace rundown batteries.”
An installation in existing homes must have at least 14-gage nonmetallic-sheathed cable with a junction box to which the smoke detector is attached. A homeowner may install a detector himself if he can do it properly. Otherwise, only a licensed electrician may install a detector. In any case, an electrical permit is required, hut there is no fee for smoke detector installations.