Sounding the Alarm on Smoke Alarms

By Tom Kiurski

Since the news broke in late 2002, citizens in our communities have been subjected to news reports concerning the ineffectiveness of smoke alarms. Tests have been conducted in many communities that suggest smoke alarms are not doing the job of alerting people in case of fire. Let me assure you, SMOKE ALARMS STILL DO SAVE LIVES! We have been preaching this for years, and the news information does not mean smoke alarms are ineffective. The falling number of fire deaths in this country in the past 30 years, since smoke alarm technology has been available, is impressive. The number of annual fire deaths in the United States has fallen from a 1970s level of more than10,000 to our toll today of about 4,000. We still lose too many lives to fire, but having working smoke alarms is the easiest thing we can tell families to do to cut their risk in half of dying in a home fire.

The investigative reports tell us that children under the age of 13 tend to sleep so soundly in their first two hours of sleep that a smoke alarm may not awaken them. News stations across the country have repeated this test in the past few months with similar results. Smoke alarms leave the factory with an alarm that sounds at 80 decibels. Studies show that only five to 10 percent of children in deep sleep will awaken to a sound of 120 decibels, which is 50 percent louder than smoke alarms. This may force us to rethink whether our middle school and younger students can function by themselves if there is a house fire at night. We need to have the families in our communities raise the bar of home fire safety.

In the 1970s, we asked that people install smoke alarms in their homes. In the 1980s, we realized that many smoke alarms weren’t being maintained, so we asked that they be checked monthly and their batteries changed annually. We also helped push through legislation that required smoke alarms in residences in our communities. In the 1990s, with more than 90 percent of homes with smoke alarms, we asked that multiple alarms be installed, with at least one on every level of the home. Now, with 95 percent of U.S. homes having smoke alarms, we are asking for more vigilance in fire safety. Families must have at least one smoke alarm on every level of the home, with one alarm outside every sleeping area. We cannot emphasize enough that families should consider installing smoke alarms inside the bedrooms, to increase the chance of being awakened by the alarm. We must also encourage members our community to have and practice a home fire escape plan–a vital step.

Encourage families in your community to review what to do in case the fire alarm sounds in the middle of the night, and practice various actions, such as feeling the door for heat before opening it or opening a window to escape if necessary. Tell parents to let their families know that they will do a test alarm one night soon–then they should do it, at least one hour after the last child has fallen asleep. Parents must see if their children wake up and take appropriate action. If they don’t wake up, parents will have to take the responsibility to see that they are awake, possibly by screaming their names during the smoke alarm activation. This is the best way to improve your citizens’ chances for survival in a home fire.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Underwriters Laboratories have opened a two-year investigation into what can be done to improve smoke alarms. Some suggest that a smoke alarm with a tape recorder inside it that lets parents record their own message may work. Some also suggest that flashing strobe lights in conjunction with the alarm are best. In the meantime, make sure we keep encouraging the installation and testing of smoke alarms, and have families find out for themselves if this will awaken the children in case of a nighttime fire. If the children don’t wake up with smoke alarms, an adult must be assigned to wake them.

Tom Kiurski is a firefighter, 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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