Technology & Science

Smoke alarms require your vigilance to be effective

A third of installed smoke detectors aren't fully functional, and even those that are working detect some fires better than others. Here's what you need to know to stay safe.

4 things you need to know to keep your family protected

Ionization smoke detectors, held by two U.S. firefighters in a smoke room in Barre, Vt., don't sound as early as photoelectric smoke detectors in smouldering, smoky fires. (Toby Talbot/Associated Press)

Last September, an elderly couple in Surrey, British Columbia died in a house fire. The upstairs room they were sleeping in was completely gutted and firefighters found their bodies directly underneath the smoke alarm — which, after further testing, was found not to be working.

“It was quite a tragedy,” said Len Garis, fire chief for the city of Surrey. The more shocking part was finding out some other houses on the street weren’t any better off.

“The first door we knocked on...exactly the same smoke alarm in the house across the street. We found it not to be working. So, that was really discouraging.”

A study of 47,500 house fires in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario from 2007-2011 revealed that you have a 74 per cent greater chance of dying in a house fire if the building doesn't have a working smoke alarm.

However, the same study showed it's remarkably common for smoke alarms not to be working. 

The problem may even affect your home.

Here are some things you need to know about smoke detectors in order to keep your family safe in case of a fire.

1. About a third of installed smoke detectors don't work properly.

Garis has spent a great deal of his career warning people about the dangers of non-functioning smoke alarms and with good reason.

“We discovered that 80 per cent of the fires we attended had a smoke alarm presence. But only 30 per cent were actually functioning," he said. "So just because they’re there doesn’t mean they work.”

The numbers come from a 2008 analysis commissioned by Garis and his team of the previous 20 years of smoke alarm and house fire data in Surrey.

In the recent five-year, three-province study, the numbers came out more or less the same. On average, a third of all smoke detectors were found to be nonfunctional in some way, usually due to:

  • Missing or dead batteries.
  • Being improperly installed.
  • Lack of regular testing.

The data has led Garis to do a full court press in Surrey, educating people on the importance of smoke alarms. During their educational campaign, his team gave out 5,000 smoke detectors donated by smoke alarm-maker Kidde.

2. Your smoke alarm detects some fires better than others.

According to Tim Corbett, product manager for detection products at Kidde, the devices have historically fallen into two types that use two different types of technology: ionization and photo-electric.

Smoke detectors should be tested monthly and the batteries should be changed every six months, experts say. (iStock)

Corbett describes both methods as looking for particles generated by combustion and spewed into the air during a fire. What you may not know is that each is more attuned to a certain kind of fire.

“There are some studies that show ionization [detectors] may alarm sooner to smaller particles — fast-flaming fires, if you will,” Corbett explains, “And there are studies to show the opposite for photo-electric...which may alarm sooner to larger particles of combustion caused by slower, smouldering fires.”

Kidde recommends both technologies be installed in people’s homes, specifically on every floor and near every bedroom. 

3. Smoke alarms require regular maintenance.

Considering the high number of fatalities in house fires without functional alarms, Kidde knows making the technology last longer will help. The company promises a 10-year battery life in some of its devices.

For units requiring batteries, experts recommend replacing power cells every six months.

On top of that, all smoke detectors stop working after a certain point, needing a complete replacement.

All this, Corbett says, requires vigilance on the part of the consumer. He recommends they check on the devices monthly.

“We recommend that you press that ‘test’ button and make sure the unit’s working. I mean, it’s an electronic device. You have to make sure it’s clean, make sure it’s getting power and confirm that it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”

4. Is your smoke alarm annoying or ugly? New technology may help.

Smoke detector technology is also adapting to people’s habits.

Kidde has developed intelligent algorithms designed to mitigate what the company calls “nuisance alarms” — ones set off by cooking in the kitchen, for example. These false alarms can compel people to disable a detector out of annoyance.

The Nest Protect is a futuristic-looking combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarm that comes in both wired and battery-powered models. (Anand Ram/CBC)

That kind of thought is also what went into Nest Lab’s latest home automation product, the Nest Protect, a combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarm that comes in both wired and battery-powered models.

Elegantly designed, the Protect features a metal speaker grille, large centre button and glowing LED pulses that make it look far more futuristic than the average plastic smoke alarm.

It’s also a lot more connected. On your home Wi-Fi network, it can push notifications to an iOS or Android smartphone. Notifications on your phone can tell you when an alarm has gone off and, perhaps more importantly, when batteries need replacing. The app can also give you a clear log of events once an alarm goes off.

Besides connectivity, the Protect also offers a few simple but very helpful features. When the lights go off at night, the LED ring around the centre button glows green once to confirm that the unit is working. If you get up in the middle of the night, that same ring pulses a soft white-acting as a temporary motion light. Alarms can be quieted with a wave of a hand, instead of the frantic fanning of a kitchen towel. Finally, the Protect has a clear and simple voice that speaks to you when an alarm goes off, providing crucial instruction in a potentially panicky situation.

The only drawback is the price. A Kidde alarm can cost you anywhere from $30 to $50, depending on what features it has. A Nest Protect costs $130, an unattractive selling point considering a home may need multiple units to be at maximum readiness. A more typical smoke alarm sells for $15 to $25.

Newer technology is just one of the ways to improve the odds, according to Chief Len Garis. He believes those at the greatest risk need to be educated through partnerships with organizations that can reach them, such as food banks and the Red Cross.

It’s a knocking-on-doors strategy that Garis knows has paid off. Following his public education campaign, he found that fire-related deaths and injuries went down. In fact, the elderly couple that died in September were the first two deaths due to fire this year in Surrey, pointing to the danger that demographic faces.

“My major concern is —and I’m gonna be one of these people soon — we’re gonna see the senior population explode. And I would hate to see the rate of [fire] deaths and injuries in our senior population go along the same lines,” Garis warns. “I would really challenge people to try and look after their loved ones.”