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Smoke alarm tech breakthrough is near

New technology could improve civilian safety as much as the first battery-operated smoke alarms did 40 years ago


In a column last year, I mentioned four tectonics that I believed will affect the fire service in the near future: research, technology, funding and regionalization. There's one product of research and technology that you may have missed in recent months — a new generation of smoke alarms about to be introduced to the U.S. consumer.

From an historic point of view, this new generation of smoke alarms may be as significant in the reduction of fire deaths as the nearly 75 percent reduction we've seen since the introduction of the first battery-operated ionization smoke alarms over 40 years ago.

For several years there also has been a very spirited discussion among members of the fire service on which of the current smoke alarm technologies — ionization or photoelectric — should be promoted as best for use by the general public.

Several metropolitan areas have gone so far as to mandate one type of technology over the other. While other jurisdictions seeing the critical issue of smoke alarm battery maintenance and tampering, have mandated the use of smoke alarms with the newer 10-year, tamper-proof battery.

However, this new technology should finally end these sometimes divisive discussions.

Military grade
Three years ago I was briefed by two of the leading smoke alarm manufacturers about their plans to develop a next generation of alarms using an adaptation of technology used by the military in chemical and biological weapon detectors. That technology is called Linear Discriminator Analysis, or LDA.

Those who have taken courses in chemical, biological, radiation and nuclear awareness as part of their urban search and rescue training may recognize this. The detector compares the chemical or biological makeup of the atmosphere against certain programmed models to alert the team of a potential hostile or contaminated area.

I am not expert enough to fully describe how LDA works, but I'll try to make this easier for you to understand. In late August 2015, the U.S. Fire Administration issued a report "Smart Smoke Alarm."

This report described recent testing by the Oak Ridge Laboratories in the use of microcontrollers programmed to hunt certain patterns in the atmosphere geared to the early detection of a fire. For example, one microcontroller might be programmed to detect levels of carbon monoxide, another for temperature changes and a third for smoke and flame detection.

The LDA comes into play by developing a mathematical model where when these interacting microcontrollers combine to reach certain parameters, they activate the smoke alarm, thus alerting the occupants of a fire.

Reduced false positives
Perhaps even more critical to the equation, this technology can better discriminate between an actual fire and a nuisance alarm. This reduce incidents of a resident disabling the smoke alarm due to repeated false alarms or of fire department response for a system malfunction.

The USFA report indicated that using both current data from fire research modeling and actual fire testing using the UL 217 fire tests as well as the proposed newer flaming and smoldering foam tests, the smoke alarms using LDA technology are superior to either ionization or photoelectric technologies.

One of the best points in using LDA is that with the current reduction in the cost of microcontrollers and 10-year batteries, this new generation of smoke alarms should soon be on the market without a significant cost increase.

I am sure that each smoke alarm manufacturer will have a slight variance in how it uses these microcontrollers. Yet, with a proven LDA mathematical model, coupled with a 10-year battery and perhaps interconnectivity among smoke alarm stations, even the oldest of residences in your community could be made significantly safer.

Remember, 80 percent of the fire deaths in the United States still occur in residential structures. And a significant number of our annual firefighter line-of-duty deaths occur in our "bread and butter" residential fire setting.  

Providing ways for residents and firefighters to be safer through better technology that provides earlier detection and response should be a goal for every fire chief, company officer and firefighter.  

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