COVER- The detector: Why it couldn't save a firefighter in his own house
Few people could have been more familiar with the terrifying danger of a house fire than 60-year-old Kenneth Watson. In his nearly three decades of service as a firefighter for the Roanoke Fire Department, Watson battled countless blazes, saved victims from burning homes, and consoled grieving relatives of those who'd perished in fires. He also, according to his colleagues and family, tirelessly advocated for smoke detectors, promoting the devices to the public through his work and, on his own time, lovingly pestering his friends and relatives to check their detector batteries.
It's no surprise then, that when a fire broke out in Watson's own home in Vinton, Virginia in the evening hours of December 13, his own smoke detectors functioned as designed, sounding an alarm so loud that the next door neighbors heard it.
Inside the house, however, the detectors were less helpful. The retired firefighter died in his recliner, a victim of smoke inhalation.
At a press conference three days after the tragedy, fire officials from the Roanoke County Fire Department revealed that an autopsy showed no sign of a heart attack or other natural event, and they hoped their investigation would reveal why Watson "reacted inappropriately" to the detectors' alert.
It's no mystery at all to Jay Fleming. A Deputy Fire Chief in Boston, Massachusetts, Fleming contends that the only thing inappropriate about his reaction might have involved the detectors themselves.
A Hook investigation reveals that Watson's home, like most American homes, was likely equipped with ionization detectors– a type of technology that some safety advocates call "defective."
Repeated testing, including a test conducted jointly in July by local fire officials, Fleming, and the Hook, found that the ubiquitous ionization detector fails to detect smoke from smoldering fires, the ones associated with most home fire deaths.
Last year, the International Association of Fire Fighters passed a resolution condemning ionization-only detectors because of their failure to sound an alert until residents have already been incapacitated by smoke and carbon monoxide.
Several states have already changed their laws to require that the prime competing technology, photoelectric detectors, be placed in all new residences. Now, a class action suit filed against the smoke detector industry aims to make sure no one else dies because their ionization detectors didn't alert them in time.
The suit asserts that ionization detectors fail to offer adequate protection, but it goes a step further, alleging that since the late 1970s the public could have been alerted to the danger by industry officials.
"Thousands of people have died," says Fleming, "because the public hasn't been told the truth."
A faint beeping
It was just after 9pm on Saturday, December 13 when Candith Bruner returned home to Claiborne Avenue in Vinton, a working class town of less than 8,000 people in Roanoke County. She and her husband and their three children had been attending a pre-holiday evening visit with nearby relatives.
A well maintained street of modest ranch style houses, Claiborne Avenue, says Bruner, is a friendly street where retirees and young families know each other by name. The temperature that night was hovering in the upper 30s, and a slight breeze was blowing as the family climbed the stairs leading to the front door of their brick home.
As the family stood on the front stoop unlocking the door, the wind changed direction, says Bruner, and briefly she heard a "faint beeping" and smelled a mild burning scent, a smell she describes as "hot electric."
After carrying their youngest child to bed, Bruner says, she and her husband set out to find the source of the sound and smell. They didn't have to go far.
Next door, a Jeep Cherokee was parked in the driveway of a vinyl-sided rancher, suggesting their neighbor and friend, Kenny Watson– "Mr. Kenny" to the Bruner children, who enjoyed jumping in the leaves he'd rake each autumn– was at home.
As Bruner walked through Watson's front yard, she says, she heard the sound again– and when she tried to peer through the blinds covering Watson's living room window, she says along with the beeping sound, she could hear the faint strains of Christmas music. She could also see an orange glow.
"I knew it was on fire," she says.
As Bruner's husband came around to the front of the house, the full force of the blaze was revealed.
"He saw the blinds in a side window suddenly melt," says Bruner. "We were screaming to each other."
While her husband banged on the windows and doors hoping to rouse Watson, whom they couldn't see but believed to be inside, Bruner ran home to call 911, sending her children across the street to another neighbor's house. Terrified that the fire would ignite a low hanging tree and the leaves on the ground between her house and Watson's, she raced back outside to watch for signs that the fire would spread before help could arrive.
"There's no doubt that fire would have spread from his house to ours," she says.
The fire department arrived in minutes, sparing Bruner's house. For Watson, however, it was already too late.
If there is a hell, it may look like the inside of a house that has burned. A once cozy living room is turned into a scene of blackened devastation. Furniture is reduced to its frame, electronic equipment– televisions, stereos, telephones– melts into unrecognizable rivulets of plastic and metal.
Whether from heat or the water used to extinguish the flames, drywall collapses from above leaving piles of debris. And a chemical stench lingers long in the air.
Despite such apparent chaos, for fire investigators, there are clues among the ruins.
At Watson's house, investigators pointed to a blackened "v" pattern on the wall in the living room adjacent to the reclining chair where Watson perished. During a December 16 press event designed to raise public awareness of fire safety, Roanoke County Fire Marshal Gary Huffman led reporters through Watson's house and explained that that "v" reveals the fire's point of origin.
According to Huffman, investigators believe that Watson was smoking and accidentally dropped his cigarette into a crevice in his recliner.
Improperly discarded cigarettes are a frequent cause of fatal fires because they don't typically ignite immediately. Instead, they can smolder for upwards of an hour, releasing toxic chemicals from the synthetic fabric in furniture, including carbon monoxide and cyanide, that can quickly incapacitate anyone present.
The particles released by such smoldering fires are larger than those released by flaming fires, and while they are quickly sensed by photoelectric detectors, which activate when such large particles interrupt a beam of light, ionization detectors, which use a small amount of radiation, may not sound an alert until the first flames appear.
By then, as victims have been overcome by toxic gases, it's often too late.
In the smoke detector test instigated by the Hook in June, ionization detectors never sounded when exposed to smoldering smoke– even when the smoke was thick enough to obscure visibility and require those present to don oxygen masks. That result matched numerous other smoke detector tests conducted by fire officials across the country.
Did Watson have an ionization detector?
According to Huffman, the home's first floor detector had been mounted on the ceiling in a short hallway connecting bedrooms to the living room, where Watson had been sitting about 20 feet away from the detector. It was impossible to know for certain which type Watson had had, Huffman explained, because the detector was gone– discarded, he said, by the company hired to clean up the property.
Watson's daughter, Kim Taylor, however, offered clues, describing her father's dedication in keeping his smoke detector functioning.
"It would go off at the slightest thing," she says, citing steam and cooking as two frequent sources of false alarms for the hallway detector. Watson, she says, would fan the air around the detector to silence it, but would never remove the battery– and he instructed her to do the same, since detectors that have been disabled after such false alarms are frequently forgotten, leaving residents unprotected.
Such false alarms, however, are another dangerous hallmark of ionization detectors. According to one Alaskan study, ionization detectors are as much as eight times more likely to produce nuisance alarms, and are therefore more likely to be disabled.
But the Hook would not have to rely on anecdotal evidence to determine which type of detector was present in Watson's home.
As two reporters finished interviewing Watson's neighbors on the day of the press conference, fire officials departed. Jeffrey Jones, a representative from Consolidated Waste Removal, the clean-up company, was on his way out after boarding up the house. Asked if he knew where the detector could have been taken, Jones reported that, in fact, the detector was likely still inside, buried under soggy, blackened detritus.
Jones permitted the reporters to reenter the property armed with a flashlight. After less than one minute of digging through wet debris on the floor in the darkened hallway, the detector was discovered– melted but recognizable.
The Hook provided photographs of the damaged detector to Don Russell, an electrical engineer at Texas A&M University, who ran a smoke detector testing facility at the university for a decade and has served as an expert witness in dozens of court cases.
He points out the "dark metal grated object" visible in the pictures as the ionization chamber. He also mentions the detector's "relatively small mass," which he says means it is unlikely to be a combination detector, the slightly larger type that includes both ionization and photoelectric technology.
"That," says, Russell, putting his confidence level above 90 percent, "is an ionization detector."
Part of Russell's calculation is based on the fact that an estimated 90 percent of American homes are equipped with ionization-only detectors. Both types of technology have been available for decades, but ionization became the favored technology and– bolstered by a lower price tag borne of mass production– is often the only type carried in most hardware stores, where people typically purchase their detectors.
Yet a class action lawsuit filed last June in Massachusetts U.S. District Court alleges that fire officials and smoke detector manufacturers have known for more than 30 years of the alleged superiority of photoelectric technology.
The suit names four manufacturers– Kidde, First Alert, BRK Brands Inc., and Invensys Controls– and claims that misleading packaging on ionization detectors has prevented consumers from making an informed decision. According to Boston-based Ed Notargiacomo, lead counsel on the suit filed by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro law firm, if the case is victorious, each class member– anyone who purchased an ionization-only detector since 2000– will be entitled to court-ordered reimbursement.
Notargiacomo says it's "impossible" to know the size of the class at this point, but with 90 percent of all American homes– an estimated 126 million according to 2006 U.S. Census numbers– equipped with ionization units, it's possible the class could soar into the millions.
The suit states that "the mere presence of ionization-only stand-alone smoke alarms on the market" without sufficient warning of their failings is "fraudulent, unfair, deceptive and creates a real risk of harm to consumers."
The suit further claims that the manufacturers learned of ionization's failures no later than 1978, when an English study showed that photoelectric detectors responded anywhere from one hour to two hours and 20 minutes faster than ionization detectors in a smoldering scenario.
In 1980, the suit alleges, the International Association of Fire Chiefs recommended photoelectric only detectors. (According to Boston Deputy Fire Chief Jay Fleming, it was actually a subcommittee of the IAFC that made that recommendation, and he doesn't believe the full organization ever endorsed photoelectric only. Fleming says he believes the IAFC may have resisted the recommendation because at that time, not all photoelectrics could operate on battery power. That problem was fixed by the mid-1980s, he says.)
Only within the last several years has the IAFC formally endorsed combination detectors, which use both types of technology.
The Hook's call to the IAFC was not returned.
Tom Russo, spokesperson for BRK Brands, which owns the First Alert name, declined comment on the lawsuit but claims that the company "is definitely pro-photo" and supports state legislation enforcing photoelectric technology. The company, he says, simply follows the recommendations of the standard making bodies– the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Underwriters Laboratory– both of which conduct tests, and both of which currently maintain that either type of detector is suitable for dwellings.
Kidde spokesperson Heather Caldwell also declines comment on the litigation, but says that for at least the past three years, all Kidde smoke alarms have come with the printed recommendation that "both ionization and photoelectric alarms be installed."
Representatives from Invensys did not return the Hook's call for comment; however the company's website states that both ionization and photoelectric detectors "are effective means of sensing smoke in residential environments."
Notargiacomo says he is preparing to file an amended complaint in the next few weeks, and he hopes to see the case move forward in the next several months.
Fleming would also like to see that case go ahead. He has spent more than a decade trying to convince smoke detector manufacturers and legislative bodies that ionization detectors have a fatal flaw. He estimates at least 10,000-15,000 people have died unnecessarily in smoldering house fires since 1990 because they relied on ionization detectors.
Last year, he finally began to see his message take root. Massachusetts and Vermont changed their laws last summer to require photoelectric technology in new residential construction and whenever a house is sold.
Vermont's law followed a particularly wrenching incident. A fatal fire in that state killed five members of a family: a mother and her four young children. When firefighters arrived on the scene, the ionization detectors in the family's smoke-filled home were silent, although later testing proved they were operational.
In June, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) sent a scathing letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, demanding to know why that oversight body hasn't required manufacturers to take ionization-only detectors off the market or to issue stronger consumer warnings.
The Hook's messages left with the office of CPSC Chairperson Nancy Nord were not returned by press time.
In addition to Vermont and Massachusetts, at least five other states are considering legislation regarding photoelectric detectors. (Virginia, however, is not one of them.)
A trip to the Charlottesville Lowe's store shows that while the message is sinking in with some legislators, it hasn't yet reached the smoke detector market. Of the approximately dozen different smoke detector models available on Lowe's shelves, all but one are ionization-only. That other one is a combination detector (the type handed out by Charlottesville and Albemarle fire departments through their free smoke detector programs.)
According to Lowe's Charlotte-based spokesperson Karen Cobb, the chain is aware of the difference in detectors but believes either type is effective in both smoldering and flaming fires. In addition, she says, every Lowe's detector display features a laminated information sheet explaining the difference between detector types.
While this reporter noticed that display on a recent trip, the information contained suggested that either type of detector would be sufficient. None of the local Lowe's sales associates approached could answer questions about the difference in detectors or any danger posed by ionization-only.
Cobb had not responded to several follow-up questions by presstime, including whether Lowe's would consider adding photoelectric models to its offerings and whether it would consider issuing harsher warnings to customers about the risks of ionization-only detectors.
If the big box hardware stores are resisting, Charlottesville's locally owned hardware stores are a different story. Martin Hardware on Preston Avenue now carries photoelectric detectors with a sign on the door alerting customers to their presence inside. Hanging by the detector display is a copy of the Hook's most recent article on this subject ["Alarming: Most smoke detectors don't detect deadly smoke," July 10, 2008].
Meadowbrook Hardware also began carrying photoelectric detectors when customers started requesting them following the Hook's last article, according to a store employee.
Legacy of safety
Could a photoelectric detector have saved Kenny Watson's life? It's an answer that may never be known. Roanoke County Fire spokesperson Brian Clingenpeel says the toxicology report on Watson has not come in, and could take several months. That report would reveal, among other things, his carbon monoxide level at the time of death. Clingenpeel, however, says even when it is complete, it may never be made public.
However, Watson's daughter, Kim Taylor, a nurse who is currently working on her master's degree, anticipates what the report will reveal.
"We know he died from inhaling combustible materials," she says, citing the official autopsy report released soon after his death, "so we can assume [his carbon monoxide level] will be high."
Taylor says she and her father were "very close" and that he raised her alone with help from her grandmother after her mother died 23 years ago when Taylor was just 10.
Even as a child, Taylor says, she knew how important her father's work was to him– and she knew how he suffered when someone died in a fire he'd fought.
"It would bother him, you could tell, if there had been a fatality," she says. "He fished a lot. He played banjo. He had ways of coping for what he dealt with."
And even when he was promoted to Captain, a position that for some firefighters means an end to charging into burning buildings, Watson never stopped.
"He said, 'If my men are going in and putting their life on the line, I'm going in with them,'" his daughter recalls.
Watson's fire department colleague and longtime friend Ronnie Renick, who was Watson's partner in a painting business the two ran in their off hours, also recalls Watson as a dedicated fire fighter who looked out for his crew.
"The district had a lot of fires, lots of calls; and he always conducted himself in a professional manner," says Renick. "He was very respected."
Watson retired in 1999, long before the controversy over detector type erupted. Taylor says whatever information comes out about detectors and fire safety in the future, she believes her father would want the public to be educated– and to be safe.
The painful irony of her father's death isn't lost on her, and she hopes that his legacy of saving lives will continue.
If his neighbor Candith Bruner is any example, Watson's legacy is already living on.
"The fireman in him saved us that night," says Bruner, citing the fact that because he'd maintained the battery in his detector, she was able to sound an alert before the fire could spread to other houses. "That," she says, choking back tears, "is something we're never going to get over."
She says she'll also spread Watson's fire safety message with her own friends and family– but with an added piece of critical information.
"Check your smoke detector batteries," she says, "but make sure you have the right kind of detector, too."