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Working with the Media to Disseminate Smoke Detector Facts and Myths

The smoke alarm is a topic the media likes to bring up in their stories , but sometimes their information is not completely accurate.

If there is one invention that has saved tens of thousands of lives, it has to be the smoke alarm. The smoke alarm is a topic the media likes to bring up in their stories related to fires. Sometimes the information they use is not completely accurate. It is not that they are trying to be deceitful, it's because they do not have all the facts about smoke alarms. Here is some information about smoke alarms that every firefighter should know, especially when working with the media. It's also a good thing to know in case the public ask you.

Smoke alarms made their introduction in the early 1970's, a time when nearly 15,000 people were dying in fires each year in the United States. The first smoke alarms were expensive; approximately $75 to $100 each and they had a special battery in them that had to be replaced each year that cost approximately $10 each. I still have our first smoke alarm. We were proud that our family had one in the house, most people didn't.

Usually a salesperson would go door to door selling them in a neighborhood where a fire fatality recently occurred. Even the fire department I was a member of sold them as a moneymaking project; most were bought by the firefighters themselves. Most people were still not sure about them or if they could not afford the detectors.

As time went by, smoke alarms in the 1980's became less expensive and the common nine-volt battery was used. Now many more people could afford them, so their use was becoming more common.

A problem came up because people would not replace the battery. It was estimated in the mid 80's that only about 60% of the homes in the country had smoke alarms, but it was also estimated that nearly half of those were not functional because the battery was dead, or people would take the battery out to use in a toy or some other electronic device.

The wired-in model was introduced so you would never have to purchase a battery. But many times the electricity goes out when a fire starts in a building so the smoke alarm would not be able to work. In the late 80's-early 90's the wired-in smoke alarm with a battery back up was introduced. Smoke alarms by the early 1990's were more commonplace because they were inexpensive, and many fire departments were providing them to citizens free of charge.

As more smoke alarms were being used, more stories of "saves" started to surface and the media was taking notice. As they did more interviews and stories, more people heard about the smoke alarm, prompting them to go out and get one for themselves. One of my favorite stories was about a smoke alarm that was being given as a Christmas present and was sitting under the Christmas tree all wrapped up. The tree caught fire and the smoke alarm activated, alerting the occupants who escaped unharmed. True story.

Today smoke alarms are very common and required by fire codes in many parts of the country. Fire fatalities in the United States have been cut by two-thirds and the smoke alarm can take most of the credit. Today, the media still emphasizes the use of smoke alarms and if there is a save, you should take advantage of the situation and promote it.

In the past few years the media has highlighted smoke alarms in two areas; different types of smoke alarms and their effectiveness and children not waking up to smoke alarms. Here is some information you can use for both the media and the general public.

Study Shows Devices Not As Effective with Children
Children not waking to smoke alarms. In recent years one area that the media likes to pick on from time to time is the subject of children not waking to the sound of an activated smoke alarm. This should be of no surprise. Here are the reasons:

It is a medical fact, children are deep sleepers. Usually they do not hear much while they are asleep and this can last from the time they are newborn until their middle teens.

Children are not born with the instinct of knowing what to do when a smoke alarm activates or even what the sound is. They have to learn it and then they have to be conditioned to react to it. This is why we do fire drills in schools each month. The children become accustomed to the sound of the fire alarm and react by leaving the building, shutting doors and windows and shutting off the lights. It is a conditioned reflex. If they do it enough times and practice it on a regular basis, they will react accordingly.

But how many people do you know that have even taken the time to explain to their children, especially very young ones, what a smoke alarm is or let them listen to it and then explain what to do when it sounds? Actually the best way to do it is by demonstrating how the smoke alarm works, let them listen to the sound, and then pretend there is a fire and practice an evacuation with the alarm sounding.

This does not guarantee that the children will wake to the sound of a smoke alarm and even if they do, that they will waken every time. That is why it is so important that a responsible adult is always present to ensure that children evacuate the building in the event of an emergency or fire.

A new type of smoke alarm uses a combination of voice commands, which are pre-recorded by an adult which is followed by the alert tone. This may work a little better because children, just like most people, are stimulated by voice commands, especially if it is a familiar voice, like their parents. These types of smoke alarms can be added to child's room in addition to the smoke alarm that is already in the room if the fire code requires it.

Most fire codes require smoke alarms to be wired in with a battery back up and the smoke alarms must be wired together so if one is activated, all of the alarms will sound. If you add an extra smoke alarm, like the voice command unit, it is usually battery operated and will not be wired in with the other smoke alarms. You should leave the other smoke alarm connected in the room to remain code compliant.

The bottom line is that children have to be taught what a smoke alarm sounds like and what to do when it activates. This must be followed by practice or drills and it must be done at regular intervals so the children do not forget what the sound is or what to do.

Two Types of Smoke Detectors
Types of smoke alarms. There are two types of smoke alarms; ionization and photoelectric. The two different types of smoke alarms have been the subject of a number of news stories over the past years, most of them good.

Ionization smoke alarms work on a principal that extremely small particles of combustion (too small to be seen by the naked eye) are released into the atmosphere during a fire. The particles enter a special chamber of the smoke alarm that contains a fragment of radioactive material, usually Americium, which ionizes the air within the chamber. The ionized particles of air allow an electrical current to flow between negative and positive plates within the chamber. When the small particles of combustion enter the chamber, they attach themselves to the ions within the chamber reducing the current flow between the plates. This decrease in the current flow then sets off the alarm.

The important thing to remember about ionizations smoke alarms is that they work well during fast flaming fires but sometimes do not activate during cool, smoldering fires, such as a couch smoldering because of a discarded cigarette.

It is also important to remember that the material in the detection chamber (usually Americium) of the ionization smoke alarm decays over time and after approximately 10 years there may not be enough of the material to ionize the air within the chamber. That is why it is important to replace ionization smoke alarms after ten years use.

The other type of smoke alarm is the photoelectric model. This uses a beam of light to detect visible smoke in a chamber. When smoke enters the chamber and disrupts the beam of light, the alarm is activated. This type of smoke alarm usually works very well for slow, smoldering fires like a couch smoldering from careless smoking.

For years it was suggested that you have both types of smoke alarms. It appears there is some merit to this, as the International Association of Fire Chiefs is suggesting that both types of units be used together to provide the best level of protection.

New smoke alarms are now available that have both an ionization and photoelectric detector in the same unit. This provides the best protection and it is now recommended that the fire service encourage the public to use this type of smoke alarm. It may take time to completely change all the existing smoke alarms to the new type; at the very least you can start by installing one photoelectric and over time switch over to the dual unit.

Smoke alarms do save lives. The media can be of service by spreading the word about the effectiveness of functional smoke alarms in the home. Take the time to provide information to the media about this important subject.

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Tim Szymanski is the Fire - Public Information Officer for Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. As the Fire-PIO he is in charge of public information, public relations, fire safety education, Citizens Fire Academy and the Las Vegas Fire Corps program. He is also in charge of photo and video services and manages the "Fire Channel" which provides cable educational services to over 50 fire stations of five fire departments in Southern Nevada. He has been in the fire service for 35 years serving in every position from firefighter to fire chief. Nearly 20 of those years have been working with the media. He was the Fire-PIO for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He is a nationally known speaker on media relations and is now teaching public information and media relations at area colleges in Las Vegas and host a seminar each year in Las Vegas for Fire-PIOs. He is also a Fire-Photojournalist, much of his work has been seen on various TV programs and in trade magazines. Please visit Tim's website at www.Fire-Pio.Com. Or contact Tim at info@fire-pio.com.

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