New smoke alarm recommendations to be released

August 19, 2011 6:55:52 AM PDT
The state fire marshal will release recommendations on Friday that could force landlords, businesses and anyone selling a home, to install a new type of smoke alarm.

This is a big deal financially and safety-wise. The new smoke detectors, if adopted, would cost approximately $6 to $10 more per alarm than most people are paying now. Some say that's a small price to pay to save lives.

Palo Alto's acting fire Marshall tests the fire alarms he'll use for an important demonstration. The four different alarms have been set up inside the Palo Alto Fire Department's training center.

"Ninety percent of smoke alarms that are in today's home are ionizations," said Palo Alto Fire Marshal Gordon Simpkinson.

Ionization alarms sniff out smoke with an electric current. Some believe they are at times overly sensitive and at other times too slow to detect smoke. In fact some cities in California have already moved to phase them out. Last year the city of Albany became the first in the country to adopt a new policy.

"The ordinance basically outlaws ionization smoke alarms in the city of Albany and replacing them with the new photo electric type," said Albany Fire Batt. Chief Brian Crudo.

The common ionization alarms are known for their nuisance alarms as they often go off when people cook.

"A lot of people end up taking the batteries out and then they have no protection at all," said Crudo.

7 On Your Side asked the Palo Alto Fire Department to help us put various types of alarms to the test. Photoelectric alarms use a beam of light to detect smoke. The common ionization alarms as we said earlier use an electric current. Microprocessor alarms combine elements of both, using computer technology. And the dual sensor is photo electric and ionization all in a single unit. Using a barbeque fire starter and material from a sofa, the firefighters created smoke. It took less than 30 seconds for the first alarm to go off.

"The dual sensor was actually the first alarm that activated. So again, that's where you have your best range of detection. So that's what really provides the best protection for your family is a dual sensor alarm," said Simpkinson.

It wasn't long after that when the microprocessor alarm sounded, 45 seconds after the smoke started. The remaining two alarms sounded simultaneously less than a minute later, a minute and 45 seconds after the smoke started.

Firefighters then conducted a second demonstration setting a slow, simmering fire.

"So the photoelectric and the dual sensor photo-ion alarm will go off sooner. So now we have the photo ion alarm starting right now," said Simpkinson.

In fact both the photo-electric and dual alarm went off simultaneously, one minute and 38 seconds after the smoke started. Seven minutes later, which was nine minutes and 57 seconds after the smoke started, the other alarms had yet to go off.

"We're seeing it demonstrated here that this type of slow growing fire is very challenging for an ionization sensor," said Simpkinson.

It wasn't until after 10 minutes and 38 seconds that the first ionization alarm went off.

"There's a new technology out there, and we as fire service should not fight it, we should get that newer technology into the homes now," said Crudo.

The fire marshal will release 16 recommendations on Friday, but it could take up to two years to turn all those recommendations into regulations. Regardless, both the Albany and Palo Alto fire departments say you don't have to wait. Both stress that smoke alarms need to be changed every 10 years and now would be a good time to switch to some form of a photo electric alarm.


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