Report: NFPA's "Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fires" (PDF, 1 MB)
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. 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. Based on these results, almost five million households still do not have any smoke alarms.
Three out of five home fire deaths resulted from fires in properties without working smoke alarms.
In 2007-2011, smoke alarms were present in almost three-quarters (73%) of reported home fires and sounded in half (52%) 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. When smoke alarms were present in fires considered large enough to activate them, they operated 86% of the time. More than one-third (37%) of home fire deaths resulted from fires in which no smoke alarms were present at all. One-quarter (23%) 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 two out of five (40%) home fire deaths. One percent of the deaths resulted from fires that were too small to activate the smoke alarm.
The risk of dying in reported home structure fires is cut in half in homes with working smoke alarms.
The death rate per 100 reported home fires was more than twice as high in homes that did not have any working smoke alarms (1.18 deaths per 100 fires), either because no smoke alarm was present or an alarm was present but did not operate), as it was in homes with working smoke alarms (0.53 per 100 fires).
The death rate from reported fires in homes during 2007-2011 that had at least one smoke alarm (0.61 deaths per 100 fires) was one-third (36%) lower than in homes that had no smoke alarms at all (0.95 deaths per 100 fires). Installing smoke alarms is the first step. It is important to be sure they are working. Surprisingly, the death rate was much higher in fires in which a smoke alarm was present but did not operate (1.94 deaths per 100 fires) than it was in home fires with no smoke alarms at all.
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. NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code® states that unless designed specifically for the area, all smoke alarms should be at least 10 feet away from cooking appliances. If space constraints make it necessary to have a smoke alarm within 10-20 feet of the kitchen stove, either a photoelectric alarm or an alarm with a hush feature that can be temporarily silenced without disabling the alarm should be used. Smoke alarms should be tested at least once every month to ensure that both the batteries and the units themselves are still working. Conventional (not long-life) batteries should be replaced in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, at least once every year.