House fires in the United States continue to claim many lives each year. In fact, 85 percent of all fire deaths occur in the home, and the majority happen at night when most people are sleeping. Smoke alarms are an important first line of defense against fire. But if they don’t work, they can’t protect you. It is essential for every household to have working smoke alarms. Data indicate that 40 percent of home fire deaths happen in homes with no smoke alarms and another 23 percent happen in homes with smoke alarms that don’t work. When smoke alarms fail to sound, it’s usually because they have missing, dead, or disconnected batteries. The Division of the Fire Marshal, Office of Research Services is strongly urging the NIH community to ensure their homes and loved ones are adequately protected by using battery operated smoke detectors in their residences.
Most fatal home fires begin in one room and then kill people elsewhere in the house. This occurs after the fire has reached extremely high temperatures in the room where it began and then smoke and toxic gases migrate to other areas.
These fires are readily detected by all common types of smoke detectors in time for sleeping occupants to awaken and safely escape. Data indicate that a typical living room fire can become deadly in only two minutes or less after the smoke alarm activates and has the potential to kill household members in as little as a four and a half minutes after it begins.
Smoke detectors are not created equally. Hard-wired smoke detectors will not work during a power outage, unless they are equipped with a battery back-up and many are not so equipped. Homeowners are strongly urged to install battery operated detectors in order to provide maximum protection when power is interrupted, a common occurrence during thunderstorms and heavy snow storms.
Smoke detectors must be properly located, installed and maintained in order to be effective. To afford adequate protection, smoke detectors must be: (1) located on every level of the home; (2) installed properly and in working condition; and (3) tested at least once a month by pushing the "test button." Batteries should be routinely replaced twice a year.
For existing homes, the National Fire Protection Association’s National Fire Alarm Code requires a minimum of one smoke detector on every floor of the home, preferably in the vicinity of the sleeping areas. In addition, in newly constructed homes, smoke detectors are required inside each room used for sleeping. Remember, at the first sound of the alarm, all occupants should evacuate, call the fire department from a phone away from the house and remain out of the house until the responding firefighters allow reentry. If you experience a fire in your home, and your house contains properly installed and maintained smoke detectors, the chances of serious injury or death are significantly reduced.
If you have any questions regarding residential smoke detectors, including detailed advice on their proper placement in your home, please contact the Division of the Fire Marshal, Office of Research Services at 301-496-0487.