THE MAY/JUNE ISSUE OF NFPA Journal included a feature titled “Work in Progress,” which marked the 40th anniversary of the landmark America Burning report produced by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. The piece celebrated the progress that has been made in fire and life safety since the report’s publication in 1973 and noted some areas that remain a challenge, including smoke alarm use. It’s useful to look at smoke alarm use through the lens of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and to consider how a more thorough understanding of the code’s requirements by all stakeholders can help save lives.
NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code
, defines a smoke alarm as “a single or multiple-station alarm responsive to smoke” that is either battery-powered, house-powered, or both. NFPA 101 requires that smoke alarms be installed in all sleeping rooms, outside each separate sleeping area in the vicinity of sleeping rooms, and on each level, including basements, of all new and existing one - and two-family dwellings.
The number of smoke alarms required in homes today has grown significantly from the number required by the 1976 edition of NFPA 101, when they were first required in one- and two-family dwellings. In that edition, only one smoke detector—the devices were referred to as smoke detectors rather than smoke alarms—was required, powered by the home’s electric service. The code stated that “when activated, the detector shall initiate an alarm which is audible in the sleeping rooms.” The location of the detector was not specified; the code simply stated that the detector was to be installed “in an approved manner,” though a code annex suggested the devices “be located in the hall area(s) giving access to rooms used for sleeping purposes.”
It is important to note that the number of civilian deaths from fire in the United States in 1976 was estimated at about 8,000, with a U.S. population of slightly more than 218 million. In 2011, the number of civilian fire deaths stood at 3,005, while the U.S. population was more than 309 million. That’s an overall decrease in civilian fire deaths of more than 62 percent, against a nearly 42 percent increase in population. All of that improvement cannot be attributed solely to the use of smoke alarms, of course, but they have clearly had a significant impact.
Even so, there is still work to do. NFPA data indicate that more than 4 million households in the United States remain unprotected, and studies suggest that those households are especially likely to include other significant risk factors, such as poverty or older adults as head of household. Other studies have found that, in some high-risk neighborhoods, more than 75 percent of the homes do not have working smoke alarms.
Code requirements have created significant improvements in life safety, but they do not magically solve our remaining problems. Nor can we rely solely on enforcement to ensure that smoke alarms are properly installed and maintained. We must also constantly communicate the importance of the code requirements themselves to stakeholders in many different ways. Only by imparting a greater understanding of the requirements and their benefits can we hope to reduce the number of deaths and injuries that are caused each year by fire.
Chip Carson, P.E., is president of Carson Associates, Inc., a fire engineering and code consultancy.