Calif. city rethinks rules on types of smoke alarms

Palo Alto fire officials are considering an end to promoting the common ionization smoke detectors

By Kevin Fagan
The San Francisco Chronicle

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Palo Alto is close to becoming the second city in the country to restrict the most common type of smoke alarm and require its lesser-known counterpart to be installed in new construction — and there may be more cities following suit.

Palo Alto's fire officials crafted the proposal after hearing about Albany Fire Chief Marc McGinn's campaign against common ionization smoke detectors. McGinn considers the detectors to be practically useless for preventing the most dangerous fires, and he persuaded the Albany City Council in July to require that people use the photoelectric type.

The Palo Alto City Council will consider doing essentially the same thing Monday, with some slight adjustments.

Photoelectric alarms detect smoke once it has crossed a small beam of light. Ionization detectors contain a tiny bit of radioactive material that creates an electric current, and once that current is disturbed by smoke, the alarm sounds.

The trouble with ionization alarms, McGinn — and now, Palo Alto fire officials — contend, is that they are triggered too readily by non-dangerous materials, such as steam from showers or smoke from a stove. This sends out so many false alarms that many people disable them.

Photoelectric detectors have been shown in several tests, including one at Texas A&M University in 2003, to be less prone to false alarms and to detect dangerous, smoldering fires much sooner than ionization devices.

'Safest way'
"We've become convinced that this is the safest way to go," said acting Palo Alto Fire Marshal Gordon Simpkinson. "We looked at what Chief McGinn did, and came up with our version. I think it can save lives.

"It's almost unheard of for a fast-burning fire to kill people in their sleep," Simpkinson said. "It's the smoldering kind that usually kills that way. And photoelectric detectors are just better for that kind of fire."

There has been no opposition publicly voiced to the proposed ordinance in Palo Alto. The city's website has already been updated to urge people "in all dwellings" to switch to photoelectric alarms, and fire officials have been urging the switch in public education appearances.

The ordinance, which would take effect Jan. 1, would require that only photoelectric devices be used within 20 feet of a bathroom or kitchen. Outside of that radius, combination alarms could be used, but not solely ionization alarms.

The two types of alarm look nearly identical from the outside. However, photoelectric devices come with a "P" printed on the bottom and cost about $15, and ionization alarms carry an "I" on the bottom and cost about $10.

Not pleased
Businesses that make ionization detectors, and the main agencies that oversee them, are not pleased by efforts like those in Albany and Palo Alto, or in Vermont and Massachusetts, the two states that also restrict the use of ionization devices.

Virtually all homes that use smoke detectors have the ionization type, and virtually all commercial buildings with detectors use photoelectric alarms.

Both types of alarms serve useful functions, said John Drengenbert, consumer safety director for Underwriters Laboratories, which establishes standards for the nation's smoke alarms. And just because ionization detectors pick up a flaming fire quicker and photoelectric alarms are a bit better for smoldering blazes doesn't mean anyone should discard one in favor of the other, he said.

"They both will work, and they both still sound the alarm," Drengenbert said. "And so we say if you really want the maximum protection, get an alarm that is a combination of both."

Kidde, the nation's biggest maker of smoke alarms, also recommends that consumers get combination alarms with both ionization and photoelectric features. So does the National Fire Protection Association, which sets U.S. standards for installing alarms.

Task force
However, Albany's McGinn, fire officials in Vermont and Massachusetts and the World Fire Safety Foundation, an Australian nonprofit, all concluded that photoelectric detectors are the best option. The state Fire Marshal's Office, at the urging of the California Fire Chiefs Association, is forming a task force to explore whether state regulations should mandate photoelectric alarms.

The panel will consist of at least 15 people, including representatives of firefighting organizations, industrial producers and oversight agencies, said Daniel Berlant, state fire marshal spokesman. The first meeting is in December.

"This is most definitely an important issue to look at," Berlant said. "We want all stakeholders and scientific data involved."

McGinn says he won't stop until every city and state has an ionization-restricting ordinance. He added that since he gave a presentation to the Fire Chiefs Association's annual meeting in September, "officials in several cities have privately told me that they are now considering going with photoelectrics."

"I've had engineers, electrical contractors and so many other people call me and say they never knew there was such a difference in the technology of the alarms," McGinn said. "This is very important. We're trying to save lives here."

Copyright 2010 San Francisco Chronicle

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