Do Fire Alarms and Smoke Detectors Keep Families Safe?

Fires in the home start for a variety of reasons. Cooking fires are high on the list, but so are things like candles left burning, smoking, electrical issues from faulty wiring and appliances and a range of other factors that are likely to occur at night, while everyone is asleep. In fact, half of all deaths from home fires happen between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Fire alarms and smoke detectors cannot prevent these fires but they can keep families safe from injury and death, as well as reduce overall property damage. The one major roadblock in their effectiveness is the human factor: fire alarms and smoke detectors must first be installed and then maintained.

The vast majority of homes in the U.S. have at least a one smoke alarm, which is a very good thing. Less good, however, is that three out of every five deaths related to fire in the home, was the result of no alarms present or none that were working. This strongly implies that many, if not most, of those deaths might have been prevented with a $49 smoke detector or a new package of batteries.

According to the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), “The death rate per 100 reported fires was more than twice as high in homes with no or no working smoke alarms (1.18 deaths per 100 fires) as it was in fires with working smoke alarms (0.53 deaths per 100 fires). The lowest fire death rates were seen in homes with hardwired smoke alarms and sprinklers.”

Smoke detectors that are hardwired into the structure’s electrical system are more effective than those that operate solely on batteries. This takes the need for the batteries to be checked and replaced on a regular basis out of the equation. There is also the ability of hardwired detectors to be interconnected throughout the house, which increases warning time for those farther away from the point of origin of the fire. NFPA reports that the death rate is 2.5 times as high in fires where there are battery-powered alarms instead of those that are hardwired.  

Fire alarms and smoke detectors can play a very large role in keeping people safe in the event of a fire, but only if they are used properly. Units installed in more locations or increased alarm volume may be required if the occupants have disabilities, take medications that cause them to sleep especially soundly, overuse alcohol or drugs or when there are other mitigating factors. Not only do batteries need to be tested and replaced but nuisance alarms must be taken care of in a responsible manner: ripping the unit off the wall because it goes off at the wrong time is, obviously, not responsible. When a smoke detector isn’t functioning properly it must be repaired or replaced immediately. Not doing so puts family members at significant risk.