Home Fire Safety Tips

It’s not always easy to tell what will make you more safe at home. We´ve compiled some information about smoke detectors, carbon monoxide alarms, and security bars and fire safety.

Learn some tips for how to protect yourself and your family!

Smoke Alarms
Alarm Age
Security Bars

Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms aren’t new. The technology has been around since the 1960s. The single-station, battery-powered smoke alarm, similar to the one we know today, became available to consumers in the 1970s. NFPA estimates that 93% of U.S. homes have at least one smoke alarm. They save so many lives that most states have laws requiring them in residential dwellings. So, why is all the attention being paid to smoke alarms this Fire Prevention Week?

Still a major problem

Although 13 of every 14 homes have at least one smoke alarm, almost half of home fires and three-fifths of fire deaths occur in the share of homes with no alarms. Thousands of people still die each year in home fires where smoke alarms aren’t present.

In addition, there are now more homes with smoke alarms that don’t work than homes without alarms at all. These poorly maintained units create a false sense of security among occupants. Approximately one-third of homes with smoke alarms that experience fires have smoke alarms that aren’t working, and hundreds of people die each year in these fires.

Tragically, the grave importance of installing and maintaining smoke alarms has not yet been fully realized. Most people who die in home fires are not in the room where the fire starts; working smoke alarms alert people to fire and give them time to escape in a situation where minutes can mean the difference between life and death.

Working smoke alarms save lives

Having a smoke alarm cuts your chance of dying nearly in half if you have a home fire. By properly placing, regularly testing and maintaining your alarms, you can ensure that they are in fact working and will alert you if a fire breaks out. Make sure you buy only those alarms that bear the mark of an independent testing laboratory. Some alarms operate using an “ionization” sensor while others use a”photoelectric” sensor. An ionization alarm uses an extremely small quantity of radioactive material to make the air in the alarm chamber conduct electricity. Smoke from a fire interferes with the electrical current and triggers the alarm. A photoelectric alarm uses a tiny light source shining on a light sensitive sensor. The alarm is triggered when smoke from a fire interferes with the light. All tested and labeled smoke alarms offer adequate protection if they are properly installed and maintained.

Make placement a priority

Where you place your smoke alarm is important to its successful function. The NFPA recommends that you keep bedroom doors closed to slow the spread of smoke and fumes as a fire develops in the house and that each bedroom in the house should have its own smoke alarm. The NFPA also recommends that smoke alarms be placed in rooms most often used such as the living room, den, or family room. Since smoke and fumes from a fire rise, it is recommended to place the smoke alarm at the highest point on the ceiling. Placing smoke alarms too near a wall, near windows, doors, or fireplace can cause problems with its function. If the smoke alarm is the wall plug-in/battery backup style, be sure that the smoke alarm is well secured and doesn’t easily come out of the wall socket. Restraints that keep the smoke alarm in place are recommended. Be sure that the wall socket where the smoke detector is connected does not get turned off by a wall light switch. For those people with new homes, the National Fire Alarm Code now requires hard-wired alarms to be interconnected. This ensures that when one smoke alarm activates, all of the alarms sound an alarm tone. For all smoke detectors, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions.

Maintenance is a must

What good are smoke alarms that don’t work? No good at all! That’s why it is imperative that you keep your smoke alarms fit and in good shape. It’s easy. Maintain your smoke alarms by:

  • Testing
    Whether your alarms are hard-wired or battery-operated, NFPA recommends testing them once a month to make sure they are operating. A working smoke alarm greatly reduces your chances of dying in a home fire. Testing is the only way to ensure they are working to protect you. Test each alarm by pushing the test button and listening for the alarm. If you can’t reach, stand under the alarm and push the test button with a broom handle.
  • Replacing Batteries
    If your smoke alarms are battery operated, replace their batteries according to the manufacturer’s instructions. NFPA recommends doing this at least once a year or when the alarm chirps, alerting you that the battery power is low. We suggest changing them twice a year, at the same time as when you change your clocks to daylight savings time and back again. Replace the batteries immediately if you move into a new home. Make sure no one disables your smoke alarms by borrowing batteries for other uses. Everyone you live with should understand how critical it is to have working smoke alarms.
  • Cleaning
    Just as you clean your home, your smoke alarms need to be cleaned. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions about cleaning. Cobwebs and dust usually can be removed with a vacuum cleaner attachment. If you are going to be doing work nearby that could send dust in the air, cover the alarm with a shield. Also, shield the alarm if you are painting around it, and never paint on it. Remove the shield promptly after work is completed.
  • Replacing Alarms
    Smoke alarms should be replaced at least every ten years. An alarm that is ten years or older might not respond properly to tests or in emergency situations. The NFPA has reported that people fifty-five years or older are more likely to have a smoke alarm that has been in use for over ten years.
Dealing with nuisance alarms

Regularly cleaning your smoke alarms and following the manufacturer’s instructions may help stop “nuisance” or false alarms. If this doesn’t stop them, install a fresh battery in the alarms giving nuisance alarms. Evaluate where your alarms are placed if the problem still persists. Cooking vapors and steam can set off a smoke alarm. If the alarm is near the kitchen or bathroom, try moving it farther away. If nuisance alarms continue, install a new smoke alarm.

No substitute for smoke alarms

Fire protection in the home must start with smoke alarms. There are many other kinds of alarms which may be designed to detect such factors as high temperatures, rapid changes in temperature, and certain gases produced in fires. However, these alarms are not as effective as smoke alarms in giving the first warning when a fire breaks out. NFPA does not require heat alarms in homes, however, they may be used for optional extra protection in areas like kitchens, attics, and garages, where smoke alarms are susceptible to nuisance alarms.

Tests performed on the speed of warning given by smoke alarms and heat alarms for many types of typical home fires showed smoke alarms consistently give first warning — often by enough of a margin to make a major difference in your chances of escaping alive. Smoke and deadly gas spread farther and faster than heat.

Contrary to popular belief, the smell of smoke may not wake a sleeping person. Instead, the poisonous gases and smoke produced by a fire can numb the senses and put one into a deeper sleep.

Smoke alarms are cost-effective

A battery-operated smoke alarm for the home retails for less than $10. Smoke alarms with extra features can cost up to $25. Batteries cost $1 to $2, depending on the brand. A smoke alarm for a typical hard-wired system costs $14-$18. Smoke alarms for people with hearing impairments cost approximately $100 each.

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Alarm Age Fact Sheet

Why NFPA recommends home smoke alarms be replaced after 10 years

Smoke alarms are one of the most important safety features of your home. Properly installed, working smoke alarms will give you the early warning you need to safely escape from a fire. But how do you make sure your alarms are working? One important way is to replace them after 10 years.

As electronic devices, alarms are subject to random failures. Product, installation, and maintenance standards are used to assure products work as designed despite this. Part of the technical basis for the first alarm product standard was an assessment of expected failure rate, estimated at four per million hours of operation or one every 30 years. Early field studies of alarm reliability, notably by Canada’s Ontario Housing Corporation, confirmed the essential accuracy of this estimate, restated as a 3% failure rate per year. This means a very small fraction of home smoke alarms will fail almost immediately, and 3% will fail by the end of the first year. After 30 years, nearly all the alarms will have failed, most years earlier.

How soon should you replace your alarm? This is a value judgment. Only 3% of alarms are likely to fail in the first year, and annual replacement would be very expensive, so that doesn’t make sense. At 15 years, the chances are better than 50/50 that your alarm has failed, and that seems too big a risk to take. Manufacturers’ warranties for the early alarms typically ran out in 3-5 years. So, in ten years there is roughly a 30% probability of failure before replacement. This seemed to balance safety and cost in a way that made sense to the responsible technical committees.

If a 30% failure probability still seems too high, remember that replacement on a schedule is only a backup for replacement based on testing. A national study found home smoke alarms, when they fail, tend to fail totally, as opposed to hard-to-detect creeping failure, such as a loss of sensitivity. Regular monthly testing will help discover alarm failure as well as a dead or missing battery. You can replace your alarm when it needs replacing.

The same study showed all the inoperable alarms tested in 1992 were at least 5 years old and predated a 1987 change in product standards that reduced sensitivity to reduce nuisance alarms. Changes in alarm chip design, among other improvements, make it likely that electronic failure now occurs at a rate much less than 4 times per million hours of operation.

Replacing alarms after 10 years protects against the accumulated chance of failure, but monthly testing is still your first, best means of making sure alarms work. Today’s alarms are even less vulnerable than the original alarms. Regular maintenance of the more sophisticated systems used in larger buildings can keep them working very reliably for many decades.

1 Julie I. Shapiro, Smoke Detector Operability Survey, Washington: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, October 1994 revised.

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Security Bars and Fire Safety

Security bars can help keep your family safe…
but did you know that can also trap in you a deadly fire?

Many people are afraid of being victims of crime. This fear has forced many residents, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, to become prisoners in their own homes, living behind iron bars and gates to protect them against intruders. What they often don’t realize is they may be trapping themselves in a life-threatening fire. Most security bars are permanently installed on windows and cannot be opened to allow escape in case of an emergency. Despite a downward trend in overall fire deaths, the number of fire deaths related to illegal security bars is on the rise.

In April 1997, nine family members died in a house fire in E. Palo Alto, California. In February 1997, four children perished in Tampa, Florida. In December 1996, a family of five died in Bessemer, Alabama, and five Los Angeles children lost their lives. This is only a sampling of the total, yet in all of these incidents, security bars on windows and locked doors prevented escape from the fire and also inhibited fire fighters’ rescue attempts.

The NFPA Center for High-Risk Outreach (formerly the LNTB Foundation), concerned about this growing problem, formed the Home Security and Fire Safety Task Group. It has published a report and produced a community information packet to raise awareness. The report describes the scope of the problem and identifies some key factors contributing to the rise in the number of incidents. The information packet includes a community leaders’ guide and several reproducible flyers which have key messages, safety tips, and illustrations of quick release devices which allow the bars to open for emergency escape.

Another group also involved in helping to reduce the number of injuries and deaths is a trade group from the security bar industry, NOMMA (National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association). With the help of several fire safety groups, NOMMA developed a set of voluntary guidelines which include customer education, manufacturing and installation recommendations.

To get a free copy of the report or the information packet, call NFPA’s Center for High-Risk Outreach at 617-984-7826.

The Problem
  • People are afraid of being victims of crime.
  • Because of this fear, many people are blockading themselves in their homes.
  • Many of the security measures being used to keep criminals OUT are trapping residents IN during emergencies.
  • Older adults and children have the greatest risk of dying in a home fire. They also often need the most help in getting out in an emergency.
  • Most fire deaths related to security bars occur in low-income neighborhoods – already a high-risk population.
Key Messages
If a fire started in your home, would you and your family know how to escape?
  • Identify emergency exits. (All rooms should have both a primary and a secondary exit.)
  • Use quick-release devices on barred windows.
  • Have a working smoke detector.
  • Make sure everyone can operate locked or barred doors and windows.
  • Practice exit drills in the home.

If you have any further questions, comments, or would simply like to discuss this issue, please contact Sharon Gamache, Executive Director, NFPA Center for High-Risk Outreach. Telephone: 617-984-7826, Fax: 617-770-0200.

© 1999-2000, NFPA

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