Report: NFPA's "Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fires"
Author: Marty Ahrens
Report includes statistics on home smoke alarm usage, effectiveness, operationality, and home fire fatalities in fires with and without working smoke alarms. Also includes home fire death rate with different combinations of fire protection equipment. Brief discussion of literature on audibility and waking effectiveness.
Smoke alarms have become such a common feature in U.S. homes that it is easy to take them for granted. Newspapers often report fires in which blaring smoke alarms alerted sleeping occupants to danger. These devices alert countless others to fires just as they are starting. Recent telephone surveys, including 2008 and 2010 surveys conducted for NFPA by Harris and a Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC’s) 2004-2005 survey found that 96-97% of the surveyed U.S. households reported having at least one smoke alarm.
Almost two-thirds of home fire deaths resulted from fires in properties without working smoke alarms.
In 2005-2009, smoke alarms were present in almost three-quarters (72%) of reported home fires and sounded in half (51%) of the home fires reported to U.S. fire departments. Homes include one- and two-family homes, apartments or other multi-family housing, and manufactured housing. More than one-third (38%) of home fire deaths resulted from fires in which no smoke alarms were present at all. One-quarter (24%) of the deaths were caused by fires in properties in which smoke alarms were present but failed to operate. Smoke alarms operated in fires that caused roughly one-third (37%) of the deaths. One percent of the deaths resulted from fires that were too small to activate the smoke alarm.
Smoke alarm failures usually result from missing, disconnected, or dead batteries.
When smoke alarms should have operated but did not do so, it was usually because batteries are missing, disconnected or dead. People are most likely to remove or disconnect batteries because of nuisance activations. Sometimes the chirping to warn of a low battery is interpreted as a nuisance alarm.
Half of the households surveyed in a 2010 Harris Poll done for NFPA reported they had smoke alarms in their kitchen. Two out of every five (43%) households reported their smoke alarms had gone off at least once in the past year. Almost three-quarters (73%) said the activation was due to cooking. Eight percent mentioned low battery chirps.
If a smoke alarm in the kitchen is sounding too often, the problem could be solved by moving the smoke alarm. Unless designed specifically for the area, all smoke alarms should be at least 10 feet away from cooking appliances. If space requires you to have a smoke alarm within 10-20 feet of the kitchen stove, install either a photoelectric alarm or an alarm with a hush feature that can be temporarily silenced without disabling the alarm. Smoke alarms should be tested at least once every month to ensure that both the batteries and the units themselves are still working. Replaceable batteries should be replaced in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, at least once every year.
In one-fifth of all homes with smoke alarms, none were working.
In 1992, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) sent surveyors to people’s homes to find out how common smoke alarms were and what portion of these devices were working in the general population's homes. In one of every five homes that had at least one smoke alarm installed, not a single one was working. Including homes without smoke alarms and homes with only non-working alarms, one-quarter of U.S. households do not have the protection of even one working smoke alarm. In follow-up visits after smoke alarm installation programs, typically a substantial portion of the installed alarms were not working. Unfortunately, the 1992 CPSC study with home visits and smoke alarm tests, has not been done again at a national level.
Most homes do not yet have the protection recommended in recent editions of NFPA 72®.
Both the 2007 and 2010 editions of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code® require smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside each sleeping area, and on every level. They should also be interconnected so that when one sounds, they all sound. New homes should have hardwired smoke alarms. Most homes do not yet have this level of protection. A 2010 Harris Interactive survey done for the NFPA found that roughly two out of every five households had smoke alarms in all bedrooms. Only one-quarter of all homes had interconnected smoke alarms.
Most homes still have smoke alarms powered by batteries only.
In the 2009 American Housing Survey (AHS), almost two-thirds (65%) of the respondents who reported having smoke alarms said their alarms were powered by batteries only, slightly more than one-quarter (28%) said their alarms were powered by electricity and batteries, and 8% had alarms powered by electricity only. For many years, NFPA 72® has required smoke alarms in new construction to be hardwired with battery backup. Yet the AHS found that in more than one-third (36%) of homes less than five years old that had working smoke alarms, the smoke alarms were powered by battery only. The death rate per 100 reported fires is twice as high in fires with smoke alarms powered by batteries as it is in fires with hardwired smoke alarms. To be effective, the codes must be adopted and enforced.