Nova Scotia

Smoke detectors have a life expectancy. A Nova Scotia family is sounding the alarm

A Nova Scotia family says their upstairs smoke detector didn't go off during a fire, leading them to have to jump out a window to safety. They are warning others about smoke detectors past their life expectancy.

Most fire-related deaths in Nova Scotia caused by smoke inhalation

The Debert volunteer fire brigade responded to a fire at Heather Clare's family home on Oct. 5, 2021. (Truro & Colchester Code 1 Coverage)

A family who narrowly escaped a fire in their house in Debert, N.S., wants others to know how important it is for homes to have working smoke detectors. 

Heather Clare and her three children were forced to jump from their second-storey window to get to safety when the hard-wired smoke detector upstairs didn't warn them of a fire downstairs. 

"All the smoke detectors in the house were getting older," Clare said. "They were all 12 years old and it was only the one downstairs that went off. So it took a while for it to wake us up."

According to data shared with CBC News by the Canadian Public Safety Operations Organization, there were 18 fire-related deaths in Nova Scotia in 2021, up from seven in 2020. 

Data from Nova Scotia's Office of the Medical Examiner shows the cause of death of 81.7 per cent of fire-related deaths since 2016 was due to some type of "inhalation injury."

Clare says the fire was started by a space heater in the laundry room. (Submitted by Heather Clare)

In a fatal fire, the smoke detectors are often destroyed, making it impossible to tell if they were operational.

But Matt Covey, Halifax Fire and Emergency's division chief of fire prevention, said he often sees expired, disabled and ineffective fire alarms in homes.

"You don't ever want to be in that situation," Covey said. "You want to be in the situation where you're notified early."

On a morning in October last year, Clare woke up around 5 a.m. to a bedroom full of smoke. Her husband was on an overnight shift, so it was up to her to wake up her children and get them out. 

The fire had blocked off the stairs and left her with only one option. 

"I smashed out the window and told the girls and my son that we had to jump," she said. "My oldest daughter was very scared, she didn't think that she could do it. So I told her that she either had to jump or she was going to die."

Clare's children Allana, Joshua and Emily had to jump out the window. Her husband, Kenneth, was at work at the time. (GoFundMe)

They all made it out of the window, but the mother and children sustained injuries. Clare's middle child still wears a body brace due to fractures in her back.

The family lost two cats, three dogs and a litter of puppies in the fire, along with their house and everything in it. 

Clare said she didn't know smoke detectors had a replacement date of 10 years after manufacture. She believes if the upstairs alarm had worked, things would have been different. 

"I think, like a lot of things, people aren't as educated as they should be about things that are in their home, particularly the things that supposedly keep us safe," Clare said.

Covey said many people don't know there are two main types of smoke detectors, and that one type is more effective at detecting the most common kind of fire. 

"We see a lot more smouldering fire events that are happening and the detection equipment that people have with their smoke alarms isn't always well suited for that type of fire," he said.

Ionization smoke alarms are the oldest and most common type to find in a home. They are most effective at detecting open-flame fires, which Covey says were most common decades ago but have been overtaken by smouldering fires.

The other type, called photoelectric or optic, is more effective at detecting a smouldering fire, yet is less common and more expensive. 

Matt Covey says most builders continue to put in ionization smoke alarms because they're cheaper. (r.classen/Shutterstock)

Covey estimates less than 10 per cent of single-family homes in his district have photoelectric alarms. 

He said smouldering fires, which generate toxic smoke, are caused by synthetic materials in homes, and fire-retardant materials that can smoke for an hour or more before igniting. 

"In studies that they've had with ionization alarms, it can ignore a fire that's going on or the smoke resulting from a fire for 10 minutes, or even longer."

He said ionization smoke detectors are also more likely to cause false alarms, so people often disable them out of frustration and then forget to enable them again.

Covey said it can sometimes be hard for people to tell what type they have in their home, but ionization alarms will have a radioactive symbol on the back. 

He hopes people will check the batteries, age, and type of their smoke detectors, and consider how important it is that they work properly. 

"Those tragedies that we investigate are heart-wrenching and … having the correct equipment can prevent some of those in the future."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Seguin is a TV, radio, and online journalist with CBC Nova Scotia, based in Kjipuktuk (Halifax). If you have a story idea, email her at nicola.seguin@cbc.ca or find her on twitter @nicseg95.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now