Author(s): Lorraine Carli. Published on May 2, 2014.

A COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO, I RECEIVED a package at the office containing a pair of smoke alarms that had just hit the market. I was already intrigued by the alarm, since I’d heard some of the buzz about it. News reports talked about its sleek look—the person who designed it had a hand in creating Apple’s original iPod—and the announcement that the company that produced the alarm had been bought by Google. The alarm was being touted as an important component of today’s high-tech home (which should also contain home fire sprinklers, of course). There was a cool factor around this product that I’d never seen associated with smoke alarms.

All the buzz made me think about how far we’ve come with smoke alarms. Today consumers can find devices that combine smoke and carbon monoxide detection in a single unit, or others that contain both ionization and photoelectric sensors, providing the best protection from both flaming and smoldering fires. Smoke alarms can be battery-powered or hardwired, and can be interconnected. Many have features for easily silencing nuisance alarms, while others can send a message to your smartphone if the alarm goes off or if the batteries need replacing. Despite all this technology, we still struggle to address a big challenge in fire safety today: reducing home fire deaths.

NFPA and fire prevention advocates across the country point to the widespread use of smoke alarms, which began in the 1970s, as a major factor in reducing home fire deaths. Since then, the number of fire deaths in homes has gone from roughly 6,000 annually to its current level of just under 2,500. That’s the good news. Less encouraging is the number of fire deaths we continue to see in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms.

According to the latest NFPA report on smoke alarms, three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms. No smoke alarms were present in more than a third of home fire deaths. In reported home fires where smoke alarms were present but did not operate, almost half of the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries. Nuisance alarms were the leading reason for disconnected smoke alarms. A quarter of the smoke alarm failures were due to dead batteries. NFPA estimates that there are about five million households nationwide without smoke alarms. While most households have at least one smoke alarm, they do not have enough alarms.

NFPA has touted the benefits of smoke alarms for four decades, and in some ways it may be a victim of its own success. The sharp reduction in home fire deaths means that most people do not think they will suffer a home fire, much less lose a loved one to a fire. But they still happen, and there are still too many people dying in home fires.

Many of those fires can be prevented if we increase the number of working smoke alarms—any listed smoke alarms—in homes. We need to reinvigorate our search for creative ways to reach the people at greatest risk. We need to work closer with similar organizations to avoid duplicating efforts and to better leverage resources, and we need to seek out new partners to help us spread our smoke alarm safety message.

Design and buzz can help make a smoke alarm cool, but they have nothing to do with providing adequate home fire protection. The biggest cool factor of all is fewer deaths from fire.

LORRAINE CARLI is vice-president of Outreach and Advocacy for NFPA.