Smoke signal: Firefighters take a detector stand

\In his own words, for nearly 15 years Boston Deputy Fire Chief Jay Fleming has been on a "one man mission" to change the type of smoke detectors used in American homes.

Not anymore. Last week, nearly 300,000 troops joined Fleming's battle when the International Association of Fire Fighters became the first major American fire organization to formally endorse photoelectric smoke detectors and, in the process, to formally condemn ionization detectors, which Fleming argues are responsible for at least 10,000 fire-related deaths since 1990.

"We're making progress!" Fleming says of the resolution– co-sponsored by Fleming's Boston department, Local 718, and the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont– that passed unanimously by voice vote last week at the IAFF's annual convention in Las Vegas.

Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont president Matt Vinci is also thrilled that the resolution passed. "It's an issue that firefighters throughout the United States, Canada, and the world need to understand," says Vinci, whose organization fought for state legislation mandating photoelectric technology following a fatal 2005 Barre, Vermont fire that killed a mother and four children after their ionization detector failed to sound an alert.

In May, Vermont Governor James Douglas signed that legislation, and at the recent IAFF convention he praised firefighters for taking a stand on photoelectric detectors. Massachusetts passed similar legislation this year, and Tennessee is currently considering laws enforcing photoelectric-only technology in new construction.

What's wrong with ionization detectors? The IAFF resolution cites the 3,000 fire-related deaths that occur in this country and Canada each year, and states that in 30 percent of those fatal house fires, a smoke detector activates. Ionization detectors, the resolution states, "may not operate in time to alert occupants early enough to escape from smoldering fires."

In another 20 percent of fatal fires, the detector has been disabled. According to one Alaskan study, ionization detectors are up to eight times as likely to be disabled as photoelectric detectors because of their propensity for false alarms.

As explained in two recent Hook cover stories, ionization detectors don't detect the larger particles released by a smoldering fire, which is the type most likely to kill people when they're sleeping. In various smoke detector tests– including one conducted by the Hook in June– ionization detectors didn't trigger at all until a smoldering fire had erupted into flames.

By that time, residents in a burning structure could have become incapacitated by the various poisons released by a smoldering fire, including carbon monoxide and even cyanide. Photoelectric detectors, on the other hand, detect both types of fires, although they may react 30 seconds slower than ionizations in a flaming fire.

Fleming argues they still provide enough time to escape in either fire scenario, and he points out that they're also less prone to false alarms.

The resolution seems to pit the IAFF against the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which endorses combination technology– detectors with both ionization and photoelectric components. But IAFF spokesperson Rich Duffy says the intent of the resolution "wasn't to be at odds." Instead, he says, "we're keeping the focus on the issue."

Members of the IAFF, he says, are convinced that photoelectric will save not only the lives of residents but also of firefighters, who are themselves safer if they receive earlier fire alerts provided by photoelectric detectors.

IAFC spokesperson Ann Davison declined comment on the resolution, citing her organization's annual convention, also held last week, which delayed review of the document.

Fire officials from both Charlottesville and Albemarle fire departments say they are aware of the IAFF's resolution but that it hasn't changed their minds. Albemarle County Fire Marshal James Barber says his department supplies combination detectors through its free smoke detector program, and will continue to do so.

To Fleming's point that the combination detectors are still more susceptible to false alarms and are more likely to be disabled, Barber replies, "We try to place it in such a way to reduce those nuisance alarms." He notes that kitchens are one of the main places for fires to begin, and many kitchen fires begin as fast-flaming fires. Seconds can count in such a scenario, Barber says.

Firefighters test smoke detectors when they're installed, he says, then instruct residents to replace batteries every six months when the time changes, even if the battery is still functioning.

Charlottesville Chief Charles Werner is also sticking with combination detectors– although the city uses a model that come with a 10-year unremovable battery. Werner insists that the permanent battery prevents people from disabling the detector, and he notes a "hush" button allows residents irritated by false alarms to quiet the device.

Like Barber, Werner notes that he has seen flaming fires result in fatalities and he believes the advantage in such scenarios justifies the continued use of combination detectors. "Photoelectric alone seems shortsighted," he says.

Fleming disagrees. He argues that the Boston Fire Department gives out photoelectric-only devices because they're concerned that "People will take the whole detector off the ceiling" if the false alarms become irritating enough.

Still, he concedes that the combination with permanent batteries "is far better than the ones that most people have," and he says he prefers to save his energy for the most pressing battle: making sure ionization-only models become a thing of the past.

The print version of this story incorrectly stated the size of smoke particles detected by ionization detectors. It has been corrected online. –ed.

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4 comments

It would be nice to have more statistics of how detectors perform in the various types of fires.

Vermont has passed a law that requires photoelectric smoke detectors in homes starting in January 2009. Seems some people will need to start upgrading their smoke alarms to meet the new requirements.

Jay Flemming is a true American Hero

So, who would I contact to get clear info about this combo?