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Community Focus
by Tom Kiurski

What's the alarm about smoke alarms?

We should take advantage of the technology that is available and mandate dual-sensing smoke alarms that have both ionization and photoelectric sensing chambers

By Tom Kiurski

Palo Alto this week became the second city in California to restrict the most common type of smoke alarm and require its lesser-known counterpart to be installed in new construction.

It seems that the city, along with Albany, is under the belief that one type of smoke alarm sensing device is far superior to the other main type of sensing device out there. 

But if those same city leaders decided that one make and model of car is the best type to have, would they ban their residents from purchasing other types of vehicles?

As you probably know, there are two main types of sensing devices in residential smoke alarms — ionization and photoelectric. Ionization sensors become disrupted when smoke enters the chamber, which sounds the alarm.

Photoelectric sensors have a light emitter that is obscured when smoke enters the chamber, which triggers the alarm. We also know that ionization smoke alarms respond faster to flaming fires, such as those caused when cooking is left unattended.

Photoelectric smoke alarms respond faster to smoldering fires, such as those caused when fires start in furniture, bedding or trash. Do we really pretend to know which fire is likely to start in which homes in our community? Last time I checked, most home fires were caused by cooking.

Fire extinguishers are available in many sizes and shapes, and they can be purchased to put out one or combinations of two or more of the main types of fires. I wish all homes would have ABC-rated fire extinguishers in them, so should we try to regulate this as well? People have options, and we hope to give them enough information to make informed choices.

Today we have more information and better technology regarding smoke alarms. If we regulate that homes have only photoelectric smoke alarms and someone dies from a flaming fire, are we opening ourselves up for liability?

If our goal is to have better smoke alarms in residential properties, how about taking advantage of the advanced technology that is available and mandate dual-sensing smoke alarms that have both ionization and photoelectric sensing chambers?

It is the job of the firefighter, among others, to educate the citizens about fire safety. This includes having smoke alarms that work throughout the house, the need for monthly testing and the importance of changing the batteries as recommended.

I feel that if we begin telling our citizens that certain types of smoke alarms are "bad" and others are "good," the risk we take is that many of them will throw up their arms in frustration and not choose any smoke alarms for fear they may pick the "wrong" one.

The generation of firefighters before us has done much work in getting smoke alarms into the vast majority of homes throughout the United States. Let's not undo all the good they did by telling our citizens that some alarms are "bad." If a family cannot afford to outfit their home with photoelectric smoke alarms, would they choose no alarms at all? I hope not.

I will take some well-placed ionization smoke alarms over some poorly-placed photoelectric smoke alarms if I had to choose. But I don't have to choose one or the other and neither should our citizens. Why not choose alarms with both sensing chambers, well-placed, with fresh batteries and a nice, recent test by well-informed homeowners?

About the author

Tom Kiurski has been in the fire service since 1981. He is the Training Coordinator and Director of Fire Safety Education for Livonia, Mich., Fire & Rescue. He has served as a firefighter/paramedic, engineer and lieutenant prior to his appointment as the training coordinator. He has earned an Associates Degree in Fire Science from Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., a Bachelors Degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology from the University of Cincinnati and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Eastern Michigan University. Tom teaches fire service-related courses at local colleges and fire academies. He has presented at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis seven times, as well as numerous state and local conferences. He has written more than 300 articles on fire safety education and training that have appeared in various fire service publications. Contact Tom at Tom.Kiurski@firerescue1.com.



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