Where There’s Smoke Buffalo Has Detectors
Fire and smoke, always dangerous, are doubly so during the dark hours of the night. This night was no exception. An early morning blaze ripped through an apartment complex in the Allentown district of Buffalo, NY, while 11 tenants slept. Loss of life seemed inevitable, but fortunately tragedy was averted. A newly installed smoke detector system alerted the sleeping tenants, and prevented a potential disaster from occurring.
Police and fire investigators credited the safe escapes to the landlord’s compliance with an ordinance that had become effective just a few days earlier on January 1, 1984.
The law requires the installation and use of smoke detectors in all residential dwellings in the city of Buffalo.
The need for residential smoke detectors is obvious. Buffalo Councilman James Keane, who is a former firefighter himself, sponsored the legislation as the result of an increase in fire deaths in the city of Buffalo in 1982. The Buffalo Common Council eventually enacted the legislation requiring detectors.
Photo by Mike Okoniewski
The city has been asking for public cooperation with the law through education and publicity. The provisions of the ordinance are available from the Fire Prevention Bureau.
The law states that the responsibility for compliance is with the owner of the home or apartment complex. In multiple family dwellings, the detectors must be hooked into the electrical system. This requires installation by a master electrician. The detectors must be wired together so that if any detector is activated, it will signal the others into audible alarms. In addition, multiple family dwellings are required to have detectors at the head of stairways leading to occupied areas and apartments. Occupied basements also must be protected.
Residential buildings of more than three stories must have manual pull stations. In single, double, and multiple family dwellings, the detectors must protect each sleeping area. The alarm must be loud enough to be heard in adjoining bedrooms with the doors closed.
While incidents such as the Allentown fire justify the need for such laws to protect city residents, the ordinance opens up a new set of questions: How could such a law be enforced? Would provisions be made for homeowners who could not afford alarms, or for the elderly or handicapped who could not install them? And last, would the majority of the population comply with the law?
Although smoke detectors are proven lifesavers, the Buffalo Fire Department estimated that only 10% of homes in the city were equipped with alarms at the end of 1983. One reason for this low adherence rate is that many people could not afford them.
To insure that the needy would not go without smoke alarms, Councilman Keane began a campaign in October 1983 to raise funds to purchase detectors. This fund raiser was similar to one held in Baltimore, MD, where $750,000 was raised to provide detectors for people who could not afford them. In addition, Buffalo firefighters volunteered their services, aiding elderly and handicapped residents with the installation.
The new law is also designed to help those who rent their homes. Tenants in two-family homes can now request an inspection from the Fire Prevention Bureau. If no detectors are found, the owner will be warned of the violation and cited if necessary. In a city that houses several university districts and rental properties, this protection is essential.
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Another fear associated with the smoke detector law is that it seems to be an intrusion of government into private lives and homes. More than cost or inconvenience, it is this aspect that has caused Buffalo residents the most anxiety. The idea of enforcement conjures up visions of George Orwell’s 1984. Would citizens be subject to unexpected inspections of their homes? The city’s reply: Of course not. The emphasis is on voluntary adherence. Buffalo officials will enforce the law only through requirements for compliance with city codes. For example, officials will check on smoke detector violations only when an owner attempts to sell his home, or secure a city grant, or conduct other city business related to his home. Violators are either warned, or taken to court and fined. The fines vary according to the severity of the violation.
Despite these controversies, the legislation has a proven track record that makes it difficult to dispute its effectiveness. In considering the ordinance, the Buffalo Common Council looked at Navy efforts in this area. From 1968-1977,6.8 fire deaths per year were averaged in 30,000 Navy housing units. That was before the smoke detectors were installed. By 1981, the Navy had yet to record a death by fire. Newark, N], also enacted a law similar to Buffalo’s. It helped to reduce fire deaths in that city by 52% the first full year it was in effect.
Based on statistics as of November 1984, the Erie County Fire Safety Department reports that fire fatalities in Buffalo have decreased significantly from previous years. National statistics show that nearly two thirds of American homes have already been voluntarily equipped with detectors.
Although the objective of the ordinance is to equip homes with smoke detectors, the home owner’s responsibility goes beyond merely installing the alarm. A batteryoperated detector is worthless if the batteries are weak or dead. Smoke detectors that are plugged into electrical outlets must stay plugged in. Detectors must be maintained and tested. They should also be cleaned of dust periodically to prevent malfunctions and false alarms.
When common sense is violated, the result is tragic. In nearby Tonawanda, a smoke detector alerted a family to a small fire in their basement. After they had extinguished it, the alarm continued to ring. Thinking that the danger was over and their alarm was broken, they removed the batteries. The smoldering fire rekindled two hours later, and the resulting flames took the lives of four family members.
In comparing the cost of smoke detectors to the cost of human lives in such tragedies, it is obvious that this is a law that all cities would be wise to adopt.
Legislation making smoke alarms mandatory can protect the entire population. Fires can happen at anytime and to anyone. If a smoke detector law results in saving even one life, then the effort has not been made in vain.