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...


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.