June 1, 2009, was a very dark and painful day in Hesperia, California. Firefighters rushed to the 16200 block of Cajon Street only to find Gabriel Pineda’s house engulfed in flames. (ABC 7 Eyewitness News Los Angeles, 2009). The firefighters entered the house and pulled out Mr. Pineda’s 10-year-old daughter and his 4-year-old son. Gabriel Pineda and his other son, Gabriel Jr., were pronounced dead at the scene as a result of smoke inhalation. On June 19, 2009, the San Bernardino Fire department concluded its investigation and they revealed that there were no smoke detectors installed in Mr. Pineda’s home. (Yarbrough, 2009)
Researcher Marty Ahrens analyzed the effectiveness of smoke alarm detectors by looking at statistical data of home fires that occurred from 2000-2004. (Ahrens, 2014) The data showed that almost half of the home fires occurred in homes where smoke alarms were either not present or not properly functioning. (Ahrens, 2014: P. 3) The total number of fires in home structures for the studied years was 375,200. (Ahrens, 2014: P. 5) There were 184,700 fires that occurred in homes were a smoke alarm was present and functioning. From those fires, there was a death rate on 0.55 per 100 fires. Id. However, there were 171,300 reported fires that occurred in homes with a non-operating fire alarm. Out of those fires, there was a death rate of 1.13 per 100 fires. Id. By looking solely at this data, one can confidently conclude that having a fully operable and functioning smoke alarm in a home is very important. The death rate is more than double in homes where there is a non-operable smoke alarm.
Ahrens also mentions that the effectiveness of smoke alarms in saving lives might be underreported in the statistical data. (Ahrens, 2014: P. 5) Ahrens states: “Because there is evidence that working smoke alarms often act so early that they convert what would have been a reported fire into a very small, unreported fire, the potential savings from universal working smoke alarms could be even larger.” Therefore, because smoke alarms notify individuals early on, this can prevent a significant fire that causes death or severe injuries. These incidents are unfortunately not reported and can highlight the effectiveness of smoke alarms if reported in the statistical data.
Fires spread and they do so pretty quickly. The effectiveness of a smoke alarm depends on the notice provided to the home occupants so that they act quickly in escaping the hazard. Ahrens compares the effectiveness of hardwired smoke alarms versus battery-operated devices. (Ahrens, 2014: P. 5). Battery-operated smoke alarms are less likely to become interconnected and therefore may be further from the origin of the fire. Id. This results in delay in automatic detection. Ahrens concludes that the percentage of fires spreading beyond the room of origin is lower in fires with hardwired smoke alarms than battery-operated devices. Id. It is important to have smoke alarms on every level of the home. This will allow the smoke to be detected immediately at the source and minimize the delay in notice. Ahrens cites to the study conducted by the National Smoke Detector Project were it showed that 26% of households had less than one alarm per floor. (Ahrens, 2014: P. 9) Basements are the most common areas not protected by smoke alarms. Id.
In order for smoke alarms to properly operate, the notice that they provide must be audible and must be loud enough to put the individuals inside the home on notice of the hazard. The data shows that 37% of individuals that were fatally injured as a result of a fire that occurred in a home with a working smoke alarm were asleep at the time of the injury. (Ahrens, 2014: P. 9) Smoke alarms are less effective and unable to deliver the proper notice to individuals that are under the influence of alcohol, sleep deprived, suffer from hearing loss, and under the influence of drugs or medication. Id. To remedy these issues, Ahrens discusses the possible changes in frequencies and signals of the alarms that can lead to a more effective notice. Id.
There are different types of smoke alarms: photoelectric and ionization. Photoelectric alarms are better designed to detect smoldering fires that produce smoke first before developing into flaming fires. (Richard H. Taylor, 2015) Smoldering fires typically occur when people are asleep, which as stated above, there is a high risk of death existent when the occupants of the home are asleep. Id. One the other hand, the ionization smoke alarm is designed for detecting flaming fires that produce less smoke, and is less effective when detecting smoldering smoke. Id. Ionization smoke alarms are less expensive than photoelectric smoke alarms and represent up to 95 percent of all smoke alarms sold. Id. If, however, an ionization smoke alarm does sound in a smoldering fire, it usually takes 30 minutes or longer to sound than a photoelectric alarm. Id. 30 minutes is a crucial amount of time that can mean the difference of life and death in many situations. If all smoke alarms are changed to photoelectric smoke alarms this may lead to a significant decrease in the number of death in my opinion nowadays. The manufacturers of ionization smoke alarms usually defend their product by stating that their alarm complies with the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Standard 217 for smoke alarms. Id. The flaw in this is that the UL standards were designed in the 1970s when most of the furniture was made out of cotton. Id. Nowadays, however, furniture is made of synthetic materials such as polyurethane, which is an oil-based product that can give off huge amounts of smoke and as a result you have a case of a smoldering fire that is unlikely to be detected by ionization alarms. Id.
Wet-pipe sprinklers are also effective in reducing fatalities resulting from fires. With wet-pipe sprinklers the fire death rate per 1,000 reported home structure fires was lower by 82% and the rate of property damage per reported home structure fire was lower by 68%. (John R. Hall, 2013) Studies showed that when sprinklers operate, they have an effectiveness rate of 96%. Id.
In conclusion, smoke detectors are highly effective in reducing the death rates as a result of fires in homes. The safest method is to have both photoelectric and ionization on every level of the home that are interconnected to a sprinkler system.
ABC 7 Eyewitness News Los Angeles. (2009, June 01). 3 DEAD, 2 INJURED IN HESPERIA HOUSE FIRE. ABC 7, Inc.: http://abc7.com/archive/6841854/
Yarbrough, B. (2009, Jun 19). Fire chief: Smoke alarms save lives: In wake of pineda family fire, firefighters bring fire alarm batteries to calls. McClatchy – Tribune Business News Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/458086600?accountid=10920
Ahrens, M. (2014). Smoke alarms m U.S. home fires. NFPA Journal, 108(3), 131-131,133. Retrieved from http-//search.proquest.com/docview/1531917981?accountid=10920 .pdf
John R. Hall, J. (2013, June). U.S. Experience Withe Sprinklers. National Fire Protection Association Fire Analysis and Research Division .
Richard H. Taylor, E. P. (2015). WHERE THERE IS SMOKE Most Home Smoke Alarms Are Inherently Defective Because They Are Terrible at Detecting Smoke. Manufacturers Have Failed to Warn About or Remedy the Defect for Decades. Trial , 51-MAR Trial 48 , 7.