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The Importance of Smoke Alarms

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting at our Fruitland Idaho office. Around 9 am we received a call to provide emergency mitigation service at a structure fire in nearby Payette. Arriving on scene to the already extinguished fire we found that half of the duplex had extensive fire and smoke damage. As our crew began the task of securing the structure and preventing secondary damage I began to speak with the occupant of the unaffected side of the duplex. He was understandably a bit shaken. He shared with me that he woke up early for work and saw the flicker of flames coming from his neighbor’s side of the dwelling. Worried, he rushed to the door to check on them. After a minute of banging on the door his neighbor came to and they were able to safely evacuate the home.

Now to the point of this story, why did it take pounding on the door to notify the occupant that his home was on fire and rapidly filling with smoke? Non-Functioning smoke alarms! Thank goodness for an alert neighbor; if it hadn’t been for him this story could have very well been tragic.

Every year in the United States, there are more than 350,000 home fires, resulting in over 2,500 deaths. Of these deaths, 60% of them occur during fires in which no working smoke alarm is present.

Smoke alarms are crucial elements in the early detection of fires. Smoke and toxic fumes spread through a house faster than flames. They are especially hazardous and can cause respiratory burns, lightheadedness, nausea, confusion, and sleepiness. Smoke inhalation is the primary cause of death for home fire victims.

About half of home fire deaths occur between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., while residents are asleep. Without a smoke alarm to wake residents and alert them to the danger, they are likely to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning or smoke inhalation. Because families may have as little as two minutes to get out of their house once a fire starts, smoke alarms provide the warning that residents need to safely escape.

It’s es
timated that about 96% to 97% of homes in the United States have smoke alarms, but that one in five of these homes does not have a single working smoke alarm. Having a non-functioning smoke alarm is just as dangerous as not having a smoke alarm at all.

Smoke alarms are extremely low maintenance. Test the smoke alarm once a month. Replace the battery once every six months and clean it every six months using a vacuum hose attachment. Every 10 years, replace your smoke alarms.

Many Fire Departments will even provide you with free smoke alarms and installation.

Thousands of lives could be spared and thousands of injuries could be prevented each year if every home had working smoke alarms.

Follow these tips to help keep you and yours safe:

1. If your home currently has only one type of smoke alarm (ionization or photoelectric), install additional smoke alarms of the second type or dual-sensor alarms, which combine both technologies. Having both types of smoke alarms will protect you from both fast-moving and smoldering fires.

2. If your household includes children, the elderly, or hearing impaired individuals, keep their special needs in mind. Children and older individuals may not hear smoke alarms while they’re sleeping. Those who are hearing impaired need to be able to see visual alarms during waking hours and other devices (vibrating bracelets, bed shakers, etc.) must be able to wake them from a sound sleep. Make sure that everyone in the house is familiar with the escape plan and that the plan accounts for providing any necessary assistance to these individuals.

3. It is recommended that each bedroom has a smoke alarm. This is even more important if members of the household sleep with their doors closed. Closed doors may hinder an individual’s ability to hear smoke alarms, putting them in additional danger in the event of a fire.

4. For battery-powered alarms, make sure you know which type of battery the alarm takes (9-volt vs. 10-year). For 9-volt battery-powered alarms, keep extra batteries on hand.

5. Hardwired alarms may also have backup batteries that kick in during power outages. Change these batteries twice a year even though they may be used infrequently. It can be easy to forget that your hardwired alarm also has batteries. Pick easy-to-remember dates, like Daylight Savings Time, to replace the batteries.

6. Don’t rely solely on the alarm’s “chirp” to remind you about low batteries. While an alarm that’s silent usually indicates that all is well, it may also indicate that it’s not working at all. Be proactive in testing and maintaining your alarm!

7. If the alarms sounds while you’re cooking, don’t take the batteries out! Press the hush button, turn on a fan, open the window, or wave a towel underneath the alarm. If you take the batteries out, you may forget to put them back in, leaving your home and family vulnerable to fire.

8. Familiarize yourself with your smoke alarm’s manual. Different manufacturers have different guidelines on when alarms should be replaced. Most units should be replaced after 8 to 10 years, but this may vary from brand to brand.

9. Do you have a nuisance alarm? One that goes off frequently while you’re cooking or for seemingly no reason? If your alarm sounds often while you’re cooking, move it a few feet further from the kitchen or cooking appliances. Alarms that sound when no smoke/fire is present should be cleaned using a vacuum hose attachment. Regular cleaning helps to keep smoke alarms functioning properly. And if the unit still does not seem to working as it should even after moving it, cleaning it, and changing the batteries, you should replace the unit.

10. Rental properties should also be outfitted with smoke alarms according to local regulations. If you are a renter, check your state’s requirements to ensure that your home is in compliance. If it’s not, talk to your landlord about having additional/different alarms installed in the property.

11. If there is a fire, get out of the house as quickly as possible (crawling underneath smoke, if necessary). Once you’re out, stay out – Never go back into a burning building!

It’s easy to become complacent regarding your home’s smoke alarms, don’t do it!! The price is not worth paying.

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