CA. fire chief calls most smoke alarms in homes useless

ALBANY, Calif. Albany Fire Chief Marc McGinn says most smoke alarms in American homes are nearly useless and put residents in danger so he's on a crusade to get them all swapped out for a cheap, better alternative.

Switching fire alarms could save about 1,500 lives a year, he believes, but the chief faces a mighty task to get the nationwide change he thinks is so badly needed..

Last month, McGinn persuaded the Albany City Council to become the first U.S. city to require every new building to use the kind of smoke alarm he recommends. Vermont has instituted a similar requirement..

That leaves 49 other states and thousands of cities to go. The obstacles: the primary manufacturer of smoke alarms and the two national agencies that regulate the devices..

"I don't care how hard I have to stir the pot, this is the most important fire safety issue of our time," the 55-year-old McGinn said. "People are dying and being disfigured by fire every day we wait, and I just can't stand to think about that.".

The issue boils down to the two main types of fire alarms sold in America: ionization alarms and photoelectric alarms. The first type is bad, McGinn says..

The two alarms look nearly identical: They're the white circles of plastic most folks are familiar with, and 96 percent of American homes have at least one kind..

2 types of alarms
An ionization alarm contains a tiny amount of radioactive material to set up an ionization chamber that creates an electric current. When the current is disturbed by smoke, the alarm sounds. It costs about $10..

A photoelectric alarm, in contrast, contains a small beam of light. When smoke disturbs that beam, the alarm sounds. It costs about $15..

The difference has to do with how smoke from different fires moves through the air and what is in that smoke..

For example, an overcooked dinner may produce small particles of smoke that waft through the air. The ionization alarm is sensitive to those tiny flecks, prompting false alarms. The photoelectric alarm can tell better when there isn't enough smoke to be a dangerous fire..

On the other end of the spectrum is the smoldering fire, which produces bigger particles. Those aren't as easily detected by the ionization alarm until the smolder becomes flames that produce the smaller particles..

Virtually all residential homes with smoke alarms have the ionization type, and virtually all commercial buildings have the photoelectric types, according to several studies..

McGinn armed with a cluster of independent research conducted since the 1970s when the alarms hit the market and governments began urging everyone to get them says the ionization alarms are so inferior to the photoelectric alarms that they are "deadly." Unlike photoelectrics, ionizations were built primarily as flame detectors, he says and people need warning long before a fire gets to the flame stage so they can flee, avoid fatal smoke inhalation or even react to squelch the blaze..

"Ionization alarms are the ones that go off when you burn your toast, and they can be so annoying that nearly a quarter of the people who own them turn them off," McGinn said. "But even more important, they go off a lot slower than photoelectrics, and by the time you hear them it can be too late..

"We absolutely have to get rid of them.".

Urging the switch
McGinn was inspired to his crusade four years ago when he happened upon a report on the two types of alarms. He wound up at the website of the World Fire Safety Foundation, an Australian nonprofit organization that advocates the switchover to photoelectric alarms. The group's site is stuffed with statistics and reports showing that ionization alarms go off more than 15 minutes later than photoelectrics in many fires, and sometimes not at all..

McGinn said he pulled Albany Fire Marshal Brian Crudo into his office and exclaimed: "Look at this. We're in trouble.".

He called foundation co-founder Adrian Butler in Australia, and by the end of the conversation, he'd decided he had to raise the alarm about alarms..

One of the reports that convinced McGinn was written at Texas A&M University in 2003. It showed that ionization detectors take 15 minutes longer or more than photoelectric ones to detect smoldering fires. Those are particularly deadly because they often start while people are asleep and kill them with smoke before they can react. About 90 percent of U.S. homes at the time contained ionization alarms, the university said..

The Barre Vt. Fire Department did an experiment in 2006 that showed a photoelectric alarm went off in 11 minutes, while the ionization alarm sounded after 1 hour and 6 minutes..

A 1980 report by a subcommittee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs concluded that, "because most home fires start from a smoldering source," the subcommittee "can take no other course but to recommend the installation of photoelectric detectors.".

"We've been doing this for 10 years, and I've talked to few people with as much energy as Marc McGinn," Butler said in a phone interview. "We never give up because all these people keep dying, and I can tell he feels the same way.".

Lives to be saved?
Statistics from organizations including the National Fire Protection Association and the U.S. Fire Administration show that 3,000 people die every year in home fires. Two-thirds of those deaths occurred in homes where smoke alarms were either not present or not working. About 22 percent of U.S. fire alarms are disconnected most by people irritated at false alarms. The disconnected alarms are virtually all ionization alarms..

Based on those statistics, McGinn estimates that if photoelectrics were used nationally instead of ionization alarms, the number of fire deaths could be cut at least by half to about 1,500. That's because the photoelectrics would not only be more effective, but they also wouldn't be disconnected as nuisances, he said..

"We cannot afford to not make this switch," he said..

City Council convinced
McGinn's research culminated at the Albany City Council meeting on July 19, when he presented his evidence and the council voted unanimously to require that all new buildings, including homes, in the 17,000-person city have only photoelectric alarms. Any buildings that receive upgrades costing more than $5,000, plus all apartment units, also fall under this law..

"I was surprised to learn about all this," Councilwoman Marge Atkinson said. "Who knows about this? Who even knows there are two kinds of alarms? It's pretty serious..

"It's exciting, in a way. I mean, we're just little Albany and we're taking this big step. But no one wasn't ready to back our chief up. We all came to the same conclusion after hearing everything.".

Also at the council meeting were representatives of Kidde, the nation's biggest maker of smoke alarms, and Underwriters Laboratories, which establishes the standards for the nation's smoke alarms. They both argued that there is nothing wrong with ionization alarms, and noted that they can detect actual flames quicker than photoelectric alarms.

Both organizations have recommended for several years that homes use a dual alarm containing both ionization and photoelectric technology. They are joined in that recommendation by the National Fire Protection Association, which sets national standards for installing alarms..

McGinn opposes the dual alarms because they still contain ionization..

"I trust that the fire chief in Albany has the citizens' safety at heart," said John Drengenbert, consumer safety director for Underwriters Laboratories, in Illinois. "These guys are heroes and they want to save lives. But the people who come to our standards meetings haven't told us we need to change the standards.".

That will change, if McGinn has his way..

The fire chief patterned much of his ordinance request after the law in Vermont, which went into effect last year at the behest of firefighters, and now he is determined to go statewide. He will be urging a switch to photoelectric alarms in a presentation at next month's annual conference of the California Fire Chiefs Association, where he will be joined by two men from Ohio who lost daughters to fire and have made it their life's work to ban ionization alarms..

"This is going to have to be a very big change," McGinn said. "But I think if we can get California to do it, the rest of the country will follow.".

By Kevin Fagan
The San Francisco Chronicle

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