Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on July 1, 2015.

Just Reward
The affordable home smoke alarm wins the inaugural Philip J. DiNenno Prize. 

SINCE AFFORDABLE HOME smoke alarms were first introduced to the marketplace in 1972, it’s estimated that they have contributed to saving more than 60,000 lives in the United States alone—lives that would have otherwise been cruelly claimed by fire.

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That’s why the affordable home smoke alarm has been selected as the recipient of the inaugural Philip J. DiNenno Prize, awarded at NFPA’s annual meeting in Chicago in June.

NFPA’s introduction to the award presentation stated that “the affordable home smoke alarm has had more direct and far-reaching impact on public safety than any other technical fire safety innovation of the past century,” and that “lives continue to be saved every day.”

Named for Philip J. DiNenno, the former CEO of the fire protection firm Hughes Associates (now JENSEN HUGHES) and a longtime NFPA Standards Council and Board leader, the award was created as the “Nobel Prize of life safety and fire protection” to encourage and reward key innovations in public safety. The award includes a cash prize of $50,000 and is supported by an endowment of more than $1.2 million, including $250,000 contributed by NFPA.

A DiNenno Prize selection committee, consisting of public safety experts from around the world, invited individuals and institutions in the public safety arena to make nominations. “The award is centered on the innovation, not the person,” said Craig Beyler, technical director emeritus at JENSEN HUGHES and a member of the selection committee. “The affordable home smoke alarm is an appropriate winner of the first DiNenno Prize. All we have to do is look up at the ceiling in our own homes to be reminded of how widespread this innovation has become.”

Beyler, who’s credited with the idea for the prize, had known DiNenno since they attended the University of Maryland together. The prize was created in part to honor the legacy of his friend, who Beyler called “the most important fire engineer of his generation.” DiNenno died of cancer in 2013 at the age of 60.

NFPA’s introduction to the award noted that DiNenno would be remembered as one of NFPA’s most outstanding leaders. “He was an extraordinarily effective advocate for fire safety… His contributions to NFPA and our mission of reducing loss from fire are incalculable.”

THE MAKING OF A SMOKE ALARM

While the award focuses on technological advancement, there would be no innovation if not for innovators.

Accepting the award was Lyman L. Blackwell, who spent his career as a self-employed inventor. An expert in nuclear and electrical engineering, his innovations spanned pulp and paper processing, helicopter technology, uranium mining, open-heart surgery, and more. In 1963, Blackwell was working in Denver, Colorado, as a consultant to the Statitrol Corporation, which had recently been spun off from the Pearsall Company by its founder, Duane Pearsall. Statitrol was trying to develop and sell a product that would remove static electricity in commercial applications such as photo labs and clean rooms. As part of this work, the Statitrol team stumbled upon a new way to detect smoke particles—one of their instruments produced erratic readings every time a team member smoked a cigarette. Eventually Pearsall and his team recognized the potential of this technology, and Pearsall reoriented Statitrol toward the production of an inexpensive, self-contained, battery-powered smoke alarm.

“Duane did far more to get this product to market than I did—I was the oddball inventor, but it was Duane who solved the manufacturing problems, raised the money, and made it happen,” Blackwell told NFPA Journal. “This award is at least as much Duane’s as it is mine.”

The process of developing that smoke alarm took nearly a decade and encountered a host of challenges. NFPA standards did not permit battery-powered smoke alarms; testing labs had no standards upon which to base approvals; state and local codes did not require home smoke alarms; and some fire service leaders were openly opposed to the idea of the alarms. But Pearsall and his team persevered, and in 1972 Statitrol’s SmokeGard Model 700 was tested and approved by Factory Mutual Laboratories (now known as FM Approvals), and shortly thereafter debuted in the Sears & Roebuck Spring Catalog for $37.88.

The decade spent developing the Model 700 was also a period of growing awareness of the nation’s fire problem, especially deaths in home fires. In 1973, a national commission released a report called “America Burning,” which detailed the difficult truths of the fire problem and proposed a goal of cutting U.S. fire losses in half within the next generation. Affordable, easy-to-install smoke alarms like the one developed by Statitrol played a crucial role in achieving this goal, saving tens of thousands of lives in the process. It was a transformation Pearsall was able to witness firsthand before his death in 2010.

“Psychologically, it’s important to me that I was able to come up with this invention that helped save lives,” said Blackwell. “I flew 33 bombing missions over Germany during World War II, and dropped hundreds of thousands of pounds of high explosives. How many people did I bomb? How many have I helped save? You think about that stuff when you get to be my age.”

At 91, Blackwell is still tinkering in the workshop at his home near Tucson, Arizona. One of his projects is a system that could capture and store energy generated by wind, solar, and other “alternative” power sources. “Inventing is an addiction worse than smoking or drinking,” he said. “For every success like the smoke alarm, you have 99 failures. If you’re an inventor, you have to love the struggle. That’s what keeps me sharp.”

SCOTT SUTHERLAND is executive editor of NFPA Journal.