Smoke Alarm Issues

In the search for a simple safety message about smoke alarms, we’re faced with many problems. We know enough to recommend installing one smoke alarm on every floor of the home, as well as one in each bedroom. But the issue starts getting complex when it comes to the question, “How many smoke alarms are we really talking about here?”

Lacking Alarms

Studies have indicated that 96% of homes have smoke alarms. But those studies may in fact be missing the mark. In door-to-door efforts conducted for the Vision 20/20 Project (funded by the AFG program), some high-risk areas demonstrated that only 10% of homes have one working smoke alarm. And even when those figures are balanced out by other communities doing home safety visits, we’re still hovering around 50% of homes (at best) with a working smoke alarm. Recent estimates from TriData for Vision 20/20 indicate a need for 100 to 150 million smoke alarms in U.S. homes.

A smoke alarm research review conducted by Richard Taylor ( highlights many of these problems. If we agree that there’s a need for millions of smoke alarms, then grants and installation programs aren’t going to be able to fill that gap.

Somewhere along the line people have to purchase and install the smoke alarms on their own. In that case, pricing could be a significant factor. The number of available choices could lead to confusion, leaving pricing as the only consideration in a purchase.

Alarm Technology

There’s also the issue of deciding which type of alarm technology is best. Generally, experts admit that photo-electric alarms alert more quickly for slow, smoldering fires, and that ionization alarms tend to alert more quickly for fast, flaming fires. So is the best level of protection a combination sensor alarm with both types of sensing chambers?

It might be, but what about battery life? In the past we could purchase dual alarms with lithium batteries that lasted longer than alkaline. Now I’m unable to find any with a listing from a nationally recognized testing laboratory (NRTL) for lithium alarms.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is nuisance activations. If, as USFA reports indicate, two-thirds of fire deaths in homes occur in places where smoke alarms aren’t present or aren’t working, then disconnecting alarms due to nuisance activations could be a major contributing factor.

Some say photo-electric alarms are less prone to nuisance alarms. That may ultimately be more important than alerting speed because a deactivated alarm does no good in any type of fire.

Future Advances

Smoke alarms are critical for public safety. But there are so many issues to address that a one-size-fits-all answer may not be the best option, especially if it limits alarm technology we haven’t even envisioned yet.

A new alarm called NEST shows promise. Nest alarms are controlled differently and allow silencing of nuisance alarms by a wave of the hand. First Alert and Kidde both have new lines that show promise as well. But there are improvements and new technologies that may solve problems better even than current models.

Final Thoughts

I don’t feel comfortable with legislative efforts that purport to have the only answer for smoke alarms. There are numerous problems for us to collectively resolve, and in the end consumers must be persuaded to update or replace their alarms with systems that will do the best job for their own household needs.

And we most certainly need better independent research to help us understand why people don’t have them and, if they do have them, why they disable them. This will help us shape our messages and our standards-making processes.

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