Keeping Your Families Safe With (Working) Smoke Detectors

By Tom Kiurski

Nothing has been as important in the battle against needless fire deaths and injuries as smoke alarms. With their widespread acceptance and installation, countless lives have been saved. Smoke alarms work to warn occupants of the accumulation of dangerous smoke, but their proper use also requires people to have some basic knowledge about their installation and maintenance. Let’s take a look at how we can inform our citizens of the importance of maintaining working smoke alarms.

Smoke alarm use became widespread during the 1970s. Back then, U.S. annual fire death rates reached approximately 12,000. Based on current research by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 96 percent of all U. S. homes have at least one smoke alarm installed. NFPA statistics show that 3,925 civilian fire deaths occurred in 2003. Increased smoke alarm usage has played a role in the decline in civilian fire deaths.

Sadly, NFPA research indicates that nearly one-quarter of the homes equipped with smoke alarms have alarms that do not work. In about half of the fires where smoke alarms didn’t work, batteries were missing or were disconnected. In 15 percent of the cases, the batteries were dead. If you note that about 70 percent of all home fire fatalities occur in houses with no working smoke alarms, the importance of maintaining smoke alarms becomes obvious.

While having a working smoke alarm is important to receive an early warning in case of fire, having several offers much better protection. You should have, as a minimum, one smoke alarm per floor in your home. This includes the basement, where the hazards of a furnace, hot water heater, or an electrical panel often can be found. While smoke alarms outside of sleeping areas is highly recommended, having one in every bedroom and outside the bedrooms in the hallway is even better.

Smoke detectors should be mounted on the ceiling or high on the wall, following the manufacturer’s guidelines. Smoke alarms should be tested once a month and batteries should be changed every year. Encourage residents to pick an easy date to remember to change the batteries, like Christmas, New Year’s day, or a birthday. Another option is the 10-year extended-life, lithium-battery-operated smoke alarm. If the smoke alarms are older than 10 years, they should be replaced entirely.

Some studies find that children often sleep through smoke alarm activations. The only way to find out if your children do this is to test the alarm after they fall asleep. If they fail to wake, have an alarm put close to their bed, or have an adult make sure they are up and moving in case of an alarm. Research is being conducted on voice-recorded messages to make the alarm a familiar sound to those in the house, instead of just a glaring noise. Researchers believe a familiar voice with instructions is much more likely to get children awake and moving.

Many communities have a smoke alarm giveaway program. Citizens can call or stop by local fire stations and request smoke alarm(s) for their residences. Some fire departments give them away, while others arrange a convenient time to stop by and install the smoke alarms in the home.

I have heard of other fire departments that encourage a “Citywide Smoke Alarm Testing Day” where, at a predetermined time, the fire apparatus sound their sirens to remind residents to check their smoke alarms.

Some fire apparatus even carry smoke alarms and batteries and will replace them in homes if necessary when fire personnel have reason to enter a home for an unrelated incident, possibly for a medical call or citizen assist call. Other fire departments have teamed up with the local “Meals on Wheels” delivery service, and have them check the smoke alarms in residences while they are bringing meals to homebound citizens.

There are many ways to help reduce the number of fire-related deaths. Ensuring the public is knowledgeable about home smoke alarms is just one of them.

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.

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