This darn nuisance saves lives
Photoelectric smoke detectors less likely to be hyperactive than ionization units
By Jim Gibson, Times Colonist July 2, 2009
You're half way through a rejuvenating shower when the smoke alarm goes off, reacting to a waft of steam escaping from the barely open door. You leap from the shower and leave a sodden trail there and back to shut it off. Minutes later, it starts up again.
Or the guests are sipping drinks in the living room when the smoke alarm starts wailing, leaving them to suspect dinner's a disaster. Dinner's just fine. The smoke alarm is only being vigilant after your quick peek at the roast in the oven.
Too vigilant, according to those who regard smoke alarms as simply annoying rather than life-saving. Alarms do shut off when correctly pressed, but can start up again if nothing is done to dispel the smoke or steam. (Try waving a towel around the unit.)
"They're just doing their job," Oak Bay Fire department's fire prevention officer Ken Gill says. Their job is to save lives, which they absolutely do, according to Dave Ferguson, B.C.'s acting fire commissioner.
"We have anecdotal evidence of it," he adds.
Nonetheless, some disable their smoke alarms by taping a bag around them to prevent future false alarms. Others might remove it from the wall or in a fit of anger -- as comedian Larry David did in Curb Your Enthusiasm -- whack it into silence with a baseball bat.
One remedy for a hyperactive alarm is to switch from an ionization unit to the less sensitive photoelectric smoke alarms, according to Stephen Watt of the B.C. fire commissioner's office. Dust -- even spiders -- can make a unit overly sensitive, according to Gill, who recommends an annual vacuuming. Another solution to a seemingly over-active smoke alarms is moving them further away from such sensitive areas as outside the bathroom or over the stove.
Just as annoying as the wailing alarm is the chirping sound when the battery needs replacing.
Rob Collins of Western Canada Fire Protection remembers one Christmas week call from a frustrated client unable to silence a chirping alarm. The problem wasn't on the wall unit as the client thought, but wrapped up under the Christmas tree. Someone was getting a smoke alarm -- albeit with a rundown battery -- on Christmas morning.
Some tenants aren't aware that the chirping stops once the battery is removed or replaced, according to apartment manager Murray Covlin. One frustrated tenant chucked his chirping alarm into the freezer to escape the noise. Another stashed his under the cushion of the apartment lobby's sofa.
"There's always a goodly number [of smoke alarms] tampered with," B.C. Apartment Owners and Managers' Association president Paul Sander says.
What's hard to determine is how many smoke alarms are disabled on purpose. Landlords must give 24 hours notice before entering a tenant's suite, long enough for anyone to restore a smoke alarm to working order.
Generally, more disabled alarms are found in lower-rent buildings, according to Collins. These tend to attract younger people, who are more likely to light candles and smoke both regular and illicit cigarettes -- all easily detected by smoke alarms.
Regardless of the tenants' ages, a poorly maintained building is likely to have more non-functioning alarms, according to Collins.
Since the late 1970s, provincial codes say multiple-unit dwellings must have working smoke alarms. More recently, the B.C. building and fire codes insist all new construction include hard-wired smoke alarms, a requirement Ferguson expects will eventually include all residential units.
Currently, landlords of multiple-unit buildings must have their fire alarms inspected annually, maintained in good working order, and replaced every 10 years. It falls to fire departments in large urban centres to police this.
Yet there is no legal penalty for tenants who disable their smoke alarms, according to Ferguson. Although an argument might be made that such an act is a breach of the tenancy agreement, Sander says.
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist
Smoke detectors might annoy people with their loud shrieks every time a slice of toast is slightly overbrowned, but the alarms are just doing their job, says Oak Bay fire prevention officer Ken Gill.Photograph by: Debra Brash, Times Colonist, Times Colonist
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