With the recent tragedy in East Gwillimbury , there have been a lot of questions about smoke alarms, how effective they are, and how to best protect you and your family.
I will first start by saying that I have no inside knowledge about the circumstances surrounding this tragedy. Any comments that I make with details about the case have been released publicly by the Fire Marshal’s office. My comments are not meant to be critical of anyone, but a general overview of smoke detection technology, and what you can do to stay safe.
There is a critical difference between a smoke “alarm” and a smoke “detector”. A smoke “alarm” is a detection device that also includes a sounding device (yes the annoying screech you hear). A smoke alarm is generally designed to work independently of a fire alarm or security system.
A smoke “detector” is designed to do just that, detect smoke. However, the detector is part of a fire/intrusion system. It does not have a sounding device. A detector relies on another device to make the noise.
A good place to start, is by looking at what type of protection are you required to have in your home. This advice will be different for apartments and other types of dwellings. Generally, a residence requires that a smoke alarm is required to be installed an every level of a home. If you have three levels, you need at least three alarms. If you have bedrooms on a level that are remote from other parts of the house, for example isolated by doors, additional alarms will be required.
In East Gwillimbury, it appears that they had a system that had smoke detectors on it (my assumption). There was a fire in the laundry room on the main floor, and it appears that the wiring for the smoke detectors passed through this area. There was no evidence of a working smoke alarm in the area of the laundry room. The fire was allowed to burn undetected for a long period of time, and damaged the wiring that led to the smoke detector(s) in other areas of the house. This damage most likely rendered the detectors inoperable. The fire was allowed to burn undetected until noticed by the residents, and it was too late.
How can you ensure that this situation does not happen to you?
- If you have a security/alarm system, make sure that you have at least one independent battery operated smoke alarm on every level of your house. I look at it as the battery operated alarms are there to notify me and my family, and the alarm system is there to notify the fire department. Most home security systems only have one detector on them. Also if you are looking at installing or upgrading an alarm system, specify that you want “Smoke Alarms” on the system. This way, you don’t have to rely on a distant “intrusion horn” to notify you.
- If you have hard wired detectors that are wired directly into your house 110 volt electrical system, make sure that they are the type that have battery backup right in the detector. I find that many people do not know if their alarms have battery backup or not. This way if the power is out, or the wiring compromised, you still have working alarms.
- If you sleep with your bedroom doors closed, it is a good idea to install a smoke alarm inside the bedroom.
- CO alarms are not mandatory, but are a good idea to have on each level of the home. There are even combination smoke/CO alarms available that work well.
What should I do if my detector keeps going off when I cook ?
- Take cooking lessons, the detector is not there to tell you when your food is done !!. Seriously, the main culprit here is food left un-attended, don’t leave the room when you are cooking.
- There is a very good web site that you can check out to find solutions to nuisance alarms. Take a look at http://www.mcscs.jus.gov.on.ca/english/FireMarshal/MakeitStop/makeitstop.html for lots of information.
What should I do if my alarm is going off ?
- The best answer is “GET OUT , AND STAY OUT”. Gather your children and get out. Smoke alarms give you early detection, but you often don’t have a lot of time. New home construction methods and modern furniture burn VERY quickly. It used to take about 20 minutes for a room to flash over, but now can take as little as 5 minutes. (and it may take 2-3 minutes to activate the alarm) Take your cell phone with you and call the fire department, or go to the neighbors and call.
What if I still have questions? Where is the best place to install the Alarms or detectors? How many should I have in my house?
- I wish I could answer all of these questions, but every situation is unique. If you have specific questions, feel free to contact me directly, or one of our very knowledgeable inspections staff. They will arrange to come to your house and answer all of your questions. If you live outside Fort Erie , contact your local department for onsite assistance.
I hope that this information helps clarify some issues surrounding smoke alarms. If you have any comments or questions that you would like to ask, please feel free to post them on this blog. If you have a question about smoke alarms, so will many others, so let start the discussion.