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Ionization Versus Photo-Electirc Smoke Alarms - April Follow-Up with Consumer Version

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There has been some confusion over my previous article on the dangers of ionization smoke alarms.  In an effort to bring some clarity, I will attempt to walk you through a small part of the research data that was used in compiling the article.  In preparing the January article, I interviewed most of the experts quoted in the article, i.e. Chief Marc McGinn, Albany Calif. Fire Chief, Dean Dennis, Fathers for Fire Safety, Adrian Butler, World Fire Safety Federation, Jay Fleming, Boston Deputy Fire Chief.  These gentlemen are most of the recognized experts on this topic in the world.  The article was also reviewed for technical accuracy by these gentlemen.  Additionally, Dr. Grosse, PhD, University of Colorado Fire Sciences department reviewed the article.  The point being, this is not my opinion.  These experts all agree that ionization alarms are a very real threat to public safety.

The purpose of the article was to alert you, the front line home inspectors to this critical issue.  It was never my intent to suggest that we should test smoke alarms or that we should determine what type of alarm is installed.  In my reports, I have added a statement recommending that all ionization alarms be replaced with photoelectric alarms.  My comment goes on to indicate that the type of alarm installed was not verified.

According to the alarm manufacturers, UL and NFPA, the annual number of residential fire death has declined significantly for the period from 1977 till 2009.  This is true.  However, the reason fewer people are dying is simply because we have fewer fires.  The chances of dying in a fire has remained fairly flat over that period.

The NFPA report titled, FIRE LOSS IN THE UNITED STATES DURING 2009 has the following to say on this subject:

Overall for the 1977-2009 period, the number of home fire deaths decreased from 5,865 in 1977 to 2,565 in 2009 for a decrease of 56%. The number of home fire incidents also declined steadily for an overall decrease of 50% for the same period. When the death rate per 1,000 home fire incidents is looked at (Figure 3), there is no steady decline, but rather the rate fluctuates considerably up and down. In fact, the death rate per 1,000 home fires was 8.1 in 1977 and 7.1 in 2009 for a decrease of 12%.  These results suggest that even though the number of home fires and home fire deaths declined similarly during the period, the death rate did not, and when there is a home fire, the fire death rate risk has not changed much for the period.

Source:  Fire Loss in the US, 8/10 8 NFPA Fire Analysis and Research, Quincy, MA

-Skip Walker

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