Fire claims the lives of one person every 2½ hours in the United States. Most of these deaths are from smoke inhalation and not burns. The first line of defense against fire are smoke alarms. Smoke alarms will detect a fire before other heat sensors of fire alarms.
The most common fires are from cooking accidents although these are usually easily extinguished and rarely need a call to the fire department. Other common causes are from an errant spark from the fireplace, combustible equipment, appliances and cigarettes.
Smoke alarms became generally available in the early 1970’s. Prices eventually fell by the early 1990’s so that 88% of US homes had at least one. Until that time smoke detectors were only used at large corporate buildings.
Several studies have shown that when there is a working smoke detector in the home the chance of dying from a fire is cut in half. However, the 12% of homes that do not have smoke detectors also are estimated to have over half of the fires that require the call of the fire department. Fire departments estimate that over 1/3 of the alarms that are in place are not in working order. Usually that is from batteries that need to be replaced. Many other homes have not placed the smoke detectors properly.
The primary job of a smoke detector is to protect you from fire while you are asleep. For this reason the detectors should be placed between any rooms that contain sleeping people and then throughout the rest of the house where they can be heard. In a multi-story home fires on the first floor without a smoke alarm can grow to dangerous conditions before a sufficient amount of smoke can rise to a stairway to set off the alarm.
There are several places in the home where a smoke alarm should not be placed. For instance, smoke detectors should not be placed in the kitchen or the garage where cooking smoke or the car exhaust will set them off. Unheated attics and crawl spaces are also areas where the appliances may not work properly because of the environmental conditions.
Smoke detectors should be placed high on the ceiling or on the wall since smoke rises quickly. The alarm should not be further than 12 inches from the ceiling and they shouldn’t be closer than 3 feet from the supply registers for forced heating systems since these might blow on the alarm and prevent smoke detection.
Smoke detectors have modifications that allow for several different options.
If you are using a battery operated model there are those that have a radio transmitter that can be placed in your bedroom. If the alarm is activated an alarm at your bedside will go off. These alarms are more expensive but the transmitter can also be given to a neighbor to monitor the home while you are away. People who have hearing impairments can get alarms that have bright flashing lights or vibrating signals.
The smoke alarms should be tested once monthly by using the test button; never use an open flame to test the monitor. They need no maintenance except to change the batteries.
Smoke detectors are affordable safety mechanisms that can save the life of you and your family if they are used properly and maintained.
National Fire Protection Association: Smoke Alarms
Municipal Technical Advisory Service: Smoke Detector Placement and Installation
United States Fire Administration: Instal Inspect Protect
Fire and Rescue: Where Should I Install them
Massachusetts: Smoke Alarm Regulations