A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Lessons on importance of having enough working smoke alarms hit close to home

On the morning of May 20, my childhood classmate Jeff Brown, his wife and two of their children died in a house fire in Lexington. According to reports, the fire started in the basement, where four of the five occupants died from smoke inhalation.

Luckily the oldest daughter, 13, sleeping in the bedroom the greatest distance from the fire, was able to escape through an open window and run to her grandparents’ house for help.

Initial reports from the local fire department indicated there wasn’t an operating smoke detector in the house at the time of the fire. Jeff’s brother, Greg Brown, said he was certain there was a smoke detector in the kitchen area and that because Jeff had lost most of his sense of smell after a surgery, he would have understood the importance of having a working alarm.

So he is a unsure about the fire department’s findings. He believes that it may have been operational because Jeff was found outside his bedroom, moving towards the kitchen.

Greg was uncertain if there was any other smoke detector in the home and agreed that if there had been one, especially in the basement, the family may well may have survived.

We can all become complacent when it comes to fire safety in our home, but when you realize that Walmart sells a three pack of battery powered Ionization smoke and fire alarms for only $14.71, there really shouldn’t be any excuse to not be protected.

When I first heard about the fire that Saturday afternoon, I was totally shocked. I had recently referred some business to Jeff, who owned and operated a landscaping company. You always think that these things happen to other people. When it happens to somebody you know, it quickly puts things into perspective.

Regardless if the smoke detector in the kitchen was working or not, this tragedy should serve as a wake-up call to all of us. According to National Fire Protection Association, 96 percent of homes have at least one smoke alarm. Still, many of us find this life-saving devise to be more of an annoyance.

The day after this horrific fire, I decided to find out if my oldest daughter’s smoke detector was working in her residence. She recently purchased an older home and when I arrived I quickly discovered that the battery in her smoke detector had been disengaged by the previous tenant.

That’s not unusual; it’s something that many homeowners will overlook when moving into a new home.

Smoke alarms have been around for decades and the first automatic electric fire alarm was patented in 1890 by Francis Robbins Upton, an associate of Thomas Edison. Ionization smoke detectors were first sold in the United States in 1951, but were used only in major commercial and industrial facilities due to their size and cost.

The first low-cost smoke detector for domestic use was developed by Duane D. Pearsall in 1965. It was a battery-powered unit that could be easily installed. The first single-station smoke detector was invented in 1970 and made available to the public the next year. It was an ionization detector powered by a single nine-volt battery and cost about $125. It sold at a rate of a few hundred thousand per year.

Several technological developments have occurred over the past few decades and it’s been estimated that 45 million alarms are sold annually.

NFPA 72 is the fire safety standard that is used as a guideline for the minimum installation/maintenance standards for protection, but it is still estimated that millions of homes do not comply.

Most homes in the U.S. do not have the necessary protection required: one smoke detector on every level, one in every bedroom and outside each sleeping area, and all devices interconnected so when one sounds an alarm, they all do. Homes built today are all equipped with the NFPA 72 guidelines in mind.

Smoke alarm failures are usually the result from missing, disconnected, or dead batteries and that’s mostly due to nuisance activations. Some other reasons why people do not have working smoke alarms include older adults who live in a home for decades stop maintaining them, smoke alarms are removed when people move, and smoke alarms are removed due to nuisance alarms.

In fires considered large enough to activate a smoke alarm, hard-wired alarms worked 91 percent of the time while battery-powered smoke alarms activated 75 percent of the time. That indicates there could be a variety of other reasons to cause a smoke detector to fail, providing a good argument for using multiple smoke detectors throughout the house.

It has been proven that even one smoke alarm reduces the risk of dying in a home fire by 50 percent. Three of every five home fire deaths resulted from no smoke alarms (38 percent) or no working smoke alarms (21 percent).  Dead batteries caused one-quarter of the smoke alarm failures.

The death rate per 100 reported home fires was more than twice as high in dwellings that did not have any working smoke alarms (1.18 deaths vs. 0.53 deaths per 100 fires).

Understanding the reasons why many homes are unprotected or under-protected with smoke detectors is essential in order to increase their use.

As a tribute to my friend Jeff Brown, with whom I went to school for 12 years, here are a few additional tips on smoke detectors use and placement:

— You can never have too many smoke detectors, but the average sized home or apartment needs more than one. Large homes will need extra smoke alarms. The exact number depends on the number of levels in the home and the number of bedrooms.

— NFPA standards recommend a minimum of one detector on each level of the home, one detector outside the bedroom area, and one in each bedroom. The detector that is placed outside of the bedroom area should be installed near enough to be heard at night through a closed bedroom door.

— Smoke alarms should be tested monthly, and the devices should be replaced every 10 years to ensure that they are operational.

— There are two kinds of smoke detector alarms. Ionization smoke alarms are quicker to warn about fires. Photoelectric alarms are quicker to warn about smoldering fires. It is best to use of both types of alarms in the home. Ionization alarms will typically respond about 30 to 90 seconds faster to “fast-flame” fires than photoelectric smoke alarms. However, in smoldering fires ionization alarms respond an average of 15 to 50 minutes slower than photoelectric alarms.

Test results show that the differences in response time are smallenough that both types provide enough time to escape.

— The number of detectors is more important than the type. Installing several smoke detectors of each type will provide better coverage in the extreme cases of long-term smoldering or fast flaming fires. But since both types respond to provide time to escape, the most important thing is to install enough detectors in the proper locations.

— People may also not know about the importance of location and nuisance alarms (i.e., there should be no smoke alarm within 20 feet from cooking areas, and if there is, it should be a photoelectric alarm not an ionization alarm to minimize nuisance alarms).

— The Ultralife 10 Year Smoke Detector Battery is the only nine volt battery warranted to last 10 years. Alkaline batteries in smoke detectors have to be changed every year. With the Ultralife 10 Year Battery, state-of-the-art lithium technology keeps your life-saving detector energized for a full decade.

— The recommended spacing between detectors is 30 feet. However, smoke detectors can be installed up to 41 feet apart in corridors up to 10 feet wide. The main fact to remember is that all points on the ceiling must be within 21 feet of the detector.

— If you mount your detector on the ceiling, be sure to keep it at least 18 inches away from dead air space near corners. If you mount it on the wall, place it four to 12 inches below the ceiling and away from corners. Keep them high because smoke rises.

— Smoke detectors should be at least 36 inches from an HVAC supply vent, ceiling fan blade tip or bathroom door with a shower or tub. The maximum allowable distance from a hallway smoke detector to a bedroom is 20 feet on an unobstructed ceiling.

— To clean smoke detectors, vacuum them once a year. This will keep the openings to the sensing chamber free of dust, residue from cooking vapors and insects.

— Smoke detector batteries should be replaced annually. The biggest reason that smoke detectors don’t work is because people remove the batteries and forget to replace them. When a battery reaches the end of its service life, the detector will give a short beep every minute or so. It is easy to remove the battery and then forget to replace it. The best way to prevent this is to replace batteries at the same time each year before the low battery signal begins.

— In order to ensure that your home has maximum protection, it’s also important to have a CO detector on every floor and no more than 5 feet from the ground near every sleeping area.

— If you can’t afford a smoke detector, you can get one at no charge by contacting your American Red Cross office.

Be Safe My Friends.


Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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One Comment

  1. Neal Zipser says:

    Great info Kevin! One more thing I would suggest….check your state law and fire/building code. Smoke alarms with 9-volt batteries may not be legal to install as a replacement alarm in your home. Best bet is to go with a smoke alarm with a sealed 10-year battery. The battery lasts the life of the alarm and cannot be taken out. The Ultralife 10-year battery can still be tampered with and is only warrantied as a backup battery in hard-wired alarms. The sealed battery alarms are warrantied for 10-years however.

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