Smoke and CO Detector Workshop Reveals Alarming Industry Issues

A recent smoke alarm workshop presentation detected low consumer education.

In February I attended a “Workshop for Survey on Usage and Functionality of Smoke Alarms and CO Alarms in Households” that was conducted by the NFPA Research Foundation and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

This was follow-up to a Vision 20/20 workshop on smoke alarms that I attended and reported on in 2015. Further back on the topic, CPSC had conducted a national survey in 1992 on the functionality of smoke alarms.

The principle objective of February’s event was to gather feedback from the participants regarding a new survey that the CPSC will be conducting during the next year (more on that in a bit).

Presentations Illustrate Lack of Consumer Clarity

Several papers were presented during the first half of the workshop covering various aspects on the use and reliability of smoke alarms. In an American Housing Survey conducted in 2011, 95% of the homes that were part of the survey reported a working smoke alarm.

This was the based on the respondents’ perception. When asked, most respondents did not know the difference between ion and photoelectric alarms, or which type that they had. Many also did not know what the low battery “chirp” was.

A 1989 National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study, “False Alarm Study of Smoke Detectors in Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Centers,” was also referenced. This study, in part, examined statistics of monitored systems.

It reported 15.8 activations for every actual alarm, and one unwanted alarm for every six devices. But what is an alarm and what is an unwanted alarm? Part of the discussion revolved around the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS).

The information that is being reported back through NFIRS is not clear. One reason is that NFIRS does not include a precise definition of what a fire is. About one-third of the incidents in which there was a fire are reported as “out on arrival.”

Numerous cases, for example, were reported as an unintentional activation of fire protection equipment where a fire extinguisher was used before the fire department arrived.

In another presentation, the requirements for the siting of smoke alarms and detectors within NFPA 72, “National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code” was discussed – in particular, the requirements for the prevention of unwanted alarms.

The item of concern to me is what’s become a moving target for smoke alarms to be resistant to cooking aerosols. The “drop dead” starting date for these smoke alarms has gone from 2016, 2019 and now 2020. In a study conducted by NIST published last December, it was found that no smoke alarm that is manufactured today meets the new standard.

RELATED: Heat and Smoke Detectors: The Latest Trends and Tech

Homeowners Undersold Urgency of Alarm Installation

So why are smoke alarms installed? There are approximately 364,500 home fires each year. For perspective, that is 0.3% of all single- and two-family units. If I as a homeowner do not install a smoke alarm today, I have a .0007% chance of having my home catch fire in the meantime.

In a recent survey by Vision 20/20, “Marketing Analysis to Support Smoke Alarm Messaging,” these are among the items people worry about: cancer, cholesterol, drowning, food poisoning, identity theft, mad cow disease, old age, Russian incursions, terrorism, voter fraud, male pattern baldness. Fires are on the list, but it is one among many.

The survey asks, “Why install a smoke alarm now?” and addresses industry messaging and education from a homeowner’s perspective the perceived susceptibility, “Will it happen to me?”; perceived severity, “Is it really that bad?”; and perceived benefits, “What’s in it for me?”

Additionally, within a category of perceived barriers are questions that a homeowner may have in regards to installation and operation such as “Which smoke alarm?”; “How much should I spend?”; and “How do I know that it is working?”

While we can agree that smoke alarms do save lives, there remains much work to be done in both the message to the customer about use and application and to industry folks about the use of the current standard for their production. Work is also needed in the proper coding of alarms within NFIRS.

Updated Study to Glean Info on Awareness, Usage

Getting back to the CPSC, the new study will be conducted this year enlisting 80 zip codes. A random sample of 40 homes and apartments will be selected for the survey. Some of the questions to be asked include:

  • Did the occupant know where each alarm was?
  • Do they test their alarms? If so, how often?
  • Did they know they had alarms not working?

The data will help ascertain better understanding of current application of smoke alarms as well as to determine better methods for communicating to owners the use and operation of smoke alarms.

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About the Author

Shane Clary

Shane Clary, Ph.D., is Security Sales & Integration’s “Fire Side Chat” columnist. He has more than 37 years of security and fire alarm industry experience. He serves on a number of NFPA technical committees, and is vice president of Codes and Standards Compliance for Pancheco, Calif.-based Bay Alarm Co.

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