State fire marshal considering phasing in new smoke alarms in Calif.

A growing number of safety officials around the nation have been recommending homeowners use lesser-known photoelectric smoke alarms

By Kevin Fagan
The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Now that the state has mandated that all houses have carbon monoxide detectors, California fire officials are turning their attention to complaints about another key home warning device — smoke alarms.

A growing number of safety officials in California and around the nation have been recommending that homeowners replace or at least supplement their common ionization smoke alarms with lesser-known photoelectric smoke alarms — and the state fire marshal may be about to echo that recommendation.

A 19-member panel convened by Acting Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover examined the debate over the two types of alarms from January to June, and last month submitted its findings to Hoover. The marshal has been reviewing the report, and is expected to issue her reaction in the next few weeks.

Members of the panel are not supposed to talk about their conclusions until after Hoover releases her report, but sources told The Chronicle that expectations are high that Hoover will recommend that the Legislature require a phaseout of ionization alarms over the next three to five years, or at least a dramatic reduction in their use.

If the state were to take that step, it would join four other states and four other California cities that have, in the past year and a half, passed legislation heavily favoring photoelectric alarms over ionization ones.

Albany chief's push
The fire marshal's panel — consisting of fire safety, building inspection and smoke alarm industry representatives — was formed last year after then-Albany Fire Chief Marc McGinn launched a personal crusade to have every home replace ionization alarms with photoelectric alarms.

He began his push after reading studies from as far away as Australia contending that ionization smoke detectors respond slower overall than photoelectric smoke detectors do to dangerous smoldering fires, and are more likely to give off false alarms.

Ionization alarms, marked with an "I" on the bottom, detect smoke with an electric current, and are so prone to being inadvertently set off by shower steam or stove smoke that about a quarter of the people who own them disconnect them, studies show.

Less-common photoelectric alarms, marked with a "P" on the bottom, use a beam of light to detect smoke, and rarely produce false alarms. They look alike, but the photoelectrics cost $2 to $5 more than the $10 ionizations.

McGinn persuaded the Albany City Council in July 2010 to become the first U.S. city to require every new building to use photoelectric alarms. Since then, the California cities of Orange, Palo Alto and Sebastopol have followed suit, as have four cities in Ohio. When Albany passed its law, the only state with such legislation was Vermont, but since then it has been joined by Maine, Massachusetts and Iowa.

On July 19, California Real Estate Inspection Association became the first home inspection organization in the nation to adopt an official position recommending that only photoelectric alarms be used in houses in this state.

"This is the most significant life-safety issue of this generation," said Skip Walker, an association board member who helped craft the position.

The move comes at the same time the state is implementing, as of July 1, a law requiring that detectors be installed in all single-family homes to detect odorless, deadly carbon monoxide.

Industry concerns
"I would be very, very happy with a three-to-five-year phaseout of ionization detectors," said McGinn, who retired in April — and who resigned his post on the fire marshal's panel around the same time, complaining that the momentum seemed weighted toward smoke alarm industry contentions that ionization alarms are still useful despite their tendency for false alarms.

"It would give the industry time to retool," McGinn said, "and it would ultimately accomplish the goal of making everyone safer."

One panel member who agrees with McGinn's distaste for ionization alarms, Palo Alto Fire Marshal Gordon Simpkinson, said he was "a little discouraged" by early panel discussions but was ultimately "a lot more satisfied."

Another panel member, Tom Fabian, maintains that ionization alarms are still valuable because they detect active flame quicker than photoelectrics. He said any concerns that all sides were not being heard were unfounded.

"Everyone on the task force had an open mind," said Fabian, a researcher with Underwriters Laboratories, which establishes the standards for U.S. smoke alarms.

"This is the most significant life-safety issue of this generation."

Skip Walker, board member, California Real Estate Inspection Association, which has an official position recommending that only photoelectric alarms be used in houses

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