Although many home owners spend thousands of dollars to increase the value and comfort of their homes, they often overlook a simple measure that can help protect both their largest investment and the lives of their families. Each year, about 6,000 deaths, 100,000 injuries, and 7 billion dollars of property damage are caused by fire. More than three-quarters of the deaths occur at home.
Many of these losses could be prevented by smoke detectors.
The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) estimates that people in homes without smoke detectors are twice as likely to die in house fires than people in homes with them. An even more alarming statistic is the fact that, out of the nearly 75% of American homes with at least one smoke detector, only between one-half and two-thirds actually work. Once these devices are installed, many people simply forget about them. In some cases they are purposely disconnected, to avoid the ear-piercing sound they emit when a skillet is overheated.
Smoke detectors should not be ignored.
An NFPA study found that 63% of overnight fire fatalities occur when it takes 20 minutes or longer to discover a fire. Two-thirds of those fatalities occur when it takes more than 40 minutes to discover the fire. The sooner a fire is discovered, especially during sleeping hours, the less destructive and deadly the consequences. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) reports that smoke detectors provide the first warning of 60% of fires that start at night.
Smoke detectors come in two basic types: ionization detectors and photoelectric detectors.
Ionization detectors contain a tiny radioactive cell that electronically charges molecules of air, creating particles called ions. These ions produce a continuous flow of electrical current that diminishes when smoke attaches to the ions. As the flow of current is reduced, the smoke alarm is triggered.
Photoelectric detectors contain a source of light which shines into a chamber, along with a photocell that is sensitive to light. When smoke enters the chamber, it scatters the light and reflects it onto the photocell, which triggers the alarm.
Ionization detectors react more quickly to flaming fires, while photocell detectors react more quickly to smoldering fires. Both can be purchased as battery-powered models (using 9-volt batteries) or plugged in or connected (hardwired) into the home's electric circuits.
The NFPA recommends that smoke detectors be installed in every room of the home.
At a minimum, one detector should be installed on each level of the home. Recommended locations include open hallways where smoke is likely to spread, and near any sleeping areas. The detectors should be located either on the ceiling, at least six inches from the wall, or high on the wall, between six and twelve inches from the ceiling.
Smoke detectors should be tested at least once a month.
Over time, they can become worn, clogged with dust, or long overdue for replacement batteries. All one needs to do is to push the "test" button on the unit, hold up a candle or incense stick, or purchase a can of aerosol spray specifically designed for testing smoke detectors. If the unit fails to trigger an alarm, check for excess dust or dirt clogs, replace the battery (if applicable), or simply replace the device, particularly if it is over five years old.
For additional information on smoke detectors and fire safety and prevention, contact your local fire department.