Fire Marshal's Corner: Photoelectric or Ionization Smoke Alarms - Which is the Right One?


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Smoke alarms have an unquestioned role in reducing the loss of life and injuries from fire. However, recent information is coming to light about how the two predominant types of smoke alarms, photoelectric and ionization, react to different fire scenarios. Television stations across the country are conducting demonstration burns to measure the response time of the different smoke alarms with some troubling results. The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently published a report that clearly indicates photoelectric react quicker to smoldering fires and ionization smoke alarms react faster to flaming fires.

Joining us is Firefighter Matthew Cetin from the Barre City, VT, Fire Department. A tragic fire claimed five lives, but what troubled the fire department was the fact that there were working smoke alarms that did not sound during the fire. As a result, they started looking into the issues of the different types of smoke alarms with some interesting results. Following him is Underwriters Laboratories Manager of Consumer Affairs John Drengenberg discussing the role that UL has and their position on the issue. Chris Dubay, vice president of Codes and Standards from the National Fire Protection Association talked with us about the efforts that NFPA has underway to look into the controversy. Finishing up is New Hampshire Fire Marshal Bill Degnan talking about the concerns that he and his peers have about this issue and what they are doing in response.

After this show was taped, NIST informed me that based on the inquiries I made regarding the reported poor performance of the dual-sensor smoke alarms in comparison to the stand-alone smoke alarms, that data was being removed from the report. It turns out that the dual-sensor smoke alarms were not co-located with the single-sensor smoke alarms which is the reason for dramatically different results.

Related links

Special reprint of an article on this subject that is appearing in the February issue of Campus Firewatch

NFPA Task Force Report

NIST Smoke Alarm Study

IAFC Fire and Life Safety Section Position Paper

National Fire Protection Association

Underwriters Laboratories

The Fire That Changed Everything - And What is Being Done by Matthew Cetin and Russell Ashe

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