Food for Thought: Smoke Alarm Safety in your Home

A survey conducted by ORC International on behalf of Kidde Fire Safety reports that almost five times as many Americans know the shelf life of a Twinkie over the recommended operating life of a smoke alarm.

Gooey Carbs 1, Fire Safety 0.

Not surprising when you think about it. Chalk another one up to Americans’ love affair with sweet snacks. Usually, fire detectors only get our attention after chirping repeatedly, as a result of low battery power. In our household, that sends our dog in orbit, which is incentive enough for us to keep both our alarms supplied with fresh batteries.

Smoke alarms simply aren’t that glamorous in the grand scheme of things. We tend to forget about the safety value they offer (and we definitely think more about our waistlines). Properly working smoke alarms cut the chances of fire-related deaths by half, according to the National Fire Protection Association. They are largely responsible for the big decline in fire-related deaths in the last 30 years.

For apartments, they are inexpensive potential safety nets that protect lives and property, once maintained.

Smoke alarm technology changing to keep up with quicker flashovers

Because their stake in keeping America safe from deadly fires has increased, these little buggers are working harder. In the last 30 years, a changing modern residence has reduced the amount of available, safe fire escapes.

Simply, house fires are reaching quicker flashovers – when flames begin to spread rapidly – and burning eight times faster than they did 50 years ago. It takes about three minutes for the fire to get out of control, about as much time as it takes to devour a snack cake, crème filling included.

Our appetites for today’s home has changed. Dwellings are larger, contents are greater and the use of petroleum-based synthetic materials in furnishings and construction is on the rise. These factors have changed the smoke and gas characteristics of residential fires and in some cases accelerated the speed of fire growth, according to Underwriter Laboratories (UL).

Researchers are trying to better understand the characteristics of various types of fires and their smoke and gas byproducts to develop the next generation of smoke alarms. Many of the newer models are based on ionization and photoelectric smoke detection technologies. While today’s smoke alarms are much better than their counterparts from 40 years ago, there is still room for improvement.

Monthly testing and replacement of old smoke alarms help ensure fire safety

One obstacle has already been hurdled. Two years ago, a physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a new smoke alarm technology that differentiates between nuisance smoke – smoke from cooking that triggers the alarm, for example – and smoke from a real fire. Nuisance smoke is a major reason why people disconnect fire alarms, fire prevention officials say.

Until the new generation of smoke alarms emerges, smoke detectors should be checked periodically to ensure they are ready to meet the call when an apartment or home is on fire. Understanding more about fire detectors and adhering to steadfast fire safety rules will be more meaningful than ever.

NFPA recommends that existing smoke alarms be tested at least once a month by pressing the test button. If the alarm doesn’t test correctly – most respond with a harsh chirp – then it can either be time for a new smoke alarm or replacement batteries.

The other recommendation is one that apparently has been trumped by baked goods in America’s minds. Smoke alarms should be changed every 10 years from the date of manufacture. That’s a much longer shelf life than for a box of snack cakes, but it’s something your residents and maintenance staff needs to know and understand.

We do know one thing, and that is that smoke alarms save lives. That’s real food for thought.

(Image source: Shutterstock)


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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