Opinion: The case for photoelectric smoke alarms

By Jeffrey S. Mailman*

On October 8-9, 1871, a massive fire in Chicago claimed the lives of more than 250 individuals. In order to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring, the anniversary week of this Great Chicago Fire has been designated as Fire Prevention Week and fire departments across the country make a concentrated effort to inform the public about the importance of having operable smoke alarms.

However, the message to simply have a working smoke alarm in your home is an inadequate message. You need to have the right type of alarm, namely, a photoelectric smoke alarm. Here’s why. The vast majority of civilian fire fatalities are caused by smoke inhalation, not from burns.

Photoelectric smoke alarms are designed to detect the smoke that causes approximately 50 to 80 New Yorkers to die from smoke inhalation each year.

Ionization alarms, which use the other form of technology and is most prevalent, are not designed to detect smoke. Both types of alarms are certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), however, an examination of UL’s testing results reveals that ionization alarms fail seven out of eight smoldering fire tests. The photoelectric alarms fail none of these tests. Despite these results, UL certifies both — this makes no sense. Moreover, a report produced by researchers at Texas A & M University concluded that there is a greater than 50 percent chance of a fatality in smoldering fires when only an ionization alarm is present. Staff members at the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission have raised the same concern with respect to the failure rates of ionization alarms. Perhaps this is why prominent fire safety organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association do not recommend relying solely on ionization smoke alarms in your home.

If the foregoing statistics are not reason enough to promote the use of photoelectric smoke alarms, such alarms have the added advantage of being significantly less susceptible to nuisance alarms caused by cooking and steam from showers. Far too many residents remove batteries or take down ionization alarms with non-removable batteries in response to repeated nuisance alarms, leaving them with no protection at all.

In order to reduce the number of civilian fatalities (as well as firefighter injuries) to the greatest extent possible, I helped draft a bill sponsored by Council Member Elizabeth Crowley that would require the use of at least one photoelectric smoke alarm or detector in every residential housing unit throughout New York City.

This bill, Proposed Int. 56-A has the support of a super-majority of council members and is currently being reviewed by the Fire Department.
Other cities, states, and countries have passed laws requiring the use of photoelectric alarms; often in response to tragic deaths. Now is the time for New York City to take action.

During Fire Prevention Week, get yourself a photoelectric smoke alarm — it could just save your life.

*Jeffrey S. Mailman serves as counsel and legislative director to Council Member Elizabeth S. Crowley, who is the chair of the New York City Council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee. He is also a Democratic candidate for City Council, District 4. 

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