A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: New generation of smoke detectors is game-changing technology that will save lives

The smoke signal is one of the oldest forms of long-distance communication. In today’s world, however, detecting a “smoke signal” is synonymous with warning occupants within a home of potential fire hazard and saving lives.

According to a somewhat-dated National Fire Protection Association report, smoke alarms cut the risk of dying in a fire in half. Statistics indicate that three-quarters of all homes in America have at least one working smoke alarm. However, NFPA statistics also show that the majority of the roughly 2,700 people who die annually in residential fires in the United States live in homes with either no smoke alarms or non-working devices.

When local fire officials investigate a home fire after the fact, they often discover that the residents had a smoke detector, but that it had been disabled because of the nuisance factor when cooking. Many alarms simply didn’t work because they were disabled by residents annoyed by the piercing loud alarm and were never put back in working order.

Statistics indicate that three-quarters of all homes in America have at least one working smoke alarm.

For those that watch NBC’s “This Is Us,” many watched in horror last season when the camera panned to the battery-less smoke detector, forecasting what was to come. A neighbor was packing and contemplated throwing away an old crockpot, but instead chose to gift it to the Pearson family. Later we discovered that it was this old crockpot that caused the house fire that killed Jack, the beloved father.

How many times have you temporarily disabled your smoke detector by either removing the battery or by unplugging the hardwire?

As a trained risk management and safety professional, I will reluctantly raise my hand, since many of you won’t or are just too ashamed to admit it — but we are all in luck because the science of today happens to be the technology of tomorrow.

The first low-cost smoke detector for domestic use was developed by Duane D. Pearsall in 1965. It was a battery-powered unit that could be easily installed. The first single-station smoke detector was invented in 1970 and made available to the public the next year. It was an ionization detector powered by a single nine-volt battery and cost about $125. It sold at a rate of a few hundred thousand per year.

Several technological developments have occurred over the past few decades and it has been estimated that 45 million alarms are sold annually. Those annoying false alarms have been a problem that has continued to baffle safety advocates for decades, as safety professionals and fire departments have tried to convince people not to tamper with their smoke detectors.

To make a better and more discerning smart alarm has for years been technologically impossible. Designing and building smoke alarms that will sound only during a real fire and not from a burning piece of toast or the forgotten biscuits in the oven has always been a dream.

For as long as smoke alarms have existed, they still have been either yes or no devices; either they detect enough smoke to sound an alarm, or they don’t. That’s true for alarms using photoelectric or ionization detection, the two prevailing technologies on the market today.

According to a recent article in NFPA Journal, breakthroughs in research and technology have brought us to a point where the next generation of smoke alarms will soon be able to discern between smoke from routine cooking and smoke generated by a serious fire. In fact, alarms will soon be mandated to detect this kind of difference.

Beginning in 2020, UL, one of the world’s largest developers of safety standards for consumer products, will no longer list smoke alarms that are unable to pass a series of tests designed to prove they are resistant to cooking and other sources of false alarms. In other words, every new smoke alarm that enters the market by 2020 should be largely free of the problem of activating because mom forgot about the lasagna that was cooking in the oven. It is perhaps the most significant technical changes UL has made to the most recent times.

In short this new technology will eliminate most of these nuisance alarms and this new breed of smoke alarms will be able to determine what kind of smoke it is sensing. They will have the capability to measure precisely the composition of smoke particles to decipher what’s burning, and make a judgment about whether that thing is a threat or not. These new smart-smoke detectors will be able to recognize all of these atmospheric conditions around the smoke alarm and sound faster with a degree of accuracy that we have never had before.

This new breed of smoke detectors is a game changer when it comes to public safety. The significance extends well beyond solving a longtime annoyance issue. It also has important ramifications for saving lives.

New technology for smoke detectors will save lives and make local fire departments more efficient and effective.

Nuisance alarms have also taken their toll on fire departments as well. In 2014, U.S. fire departments responded to almost 2.5 million false alarms, about twice the total number of reported fires and five times the number of structure fires, according to an NFPA analysis. Most were triggered by commercial monitored connections, including residential buildings such as apartment buildings, hotels, and dormitories.

According to the article in the NFPA Journal, UL was in the process of testing the first batch of new detectors to the new standard and they expect this new breed of smoke detectors to hit the market this spring. The cost of these new smoke detectors has yet to be revealed, but I am going to guess like any new invention the price will be a bit costly and will come down over time.

Despite — or perhaps because of — these changes sweeping over the industry, manufacturers and industry professionals have largely remained tight-lipped about their new products, the technology involved, and how the new listing criteria might impact the industry or the costs borne by consumers. When contacted, a representative from one large detector manufacturer declined to comment or say even when the new alarms might come to market, citing “confidential” and “proprietary” concerns.

What is clear is that much work is now underway to prepare for the approaching 2020 deadline to meet UL’s new standard. These new devises are still going through additional testing and there are still some tweaking to be done to meet and draft acceptable new language to the revisions to the new NFPA 72 standard. Installation, wiring, and location placement of these new smoke detectors still need to be spelled-out in the addressed in the NFPA 72 standard revision.

In terms of real-world impact it’s hard to overstate how significant the UL listing changes will have and the result will results will considerably reduce fewer unwanted false alarms. This is a win-win for the consumer and first-responding fire departments. It will also dramatically increase safety and save additional lives in the coming years.

Moving forward this does not mean that residents, inspectors, or code officials need to take any action to replace still-functioning older alarms. All of these existing smoke alarms still work just fine, and do not need to be replaced; this should happen organically over time and through attrition.

Like a magician, any technological advancement that these scientists create is still magic even if we know how it works. I have learned through the years that those who have resisted change and don’t accept these new technology steamrollers, they later become part of the road. In this case, new technology will save lives and make our local fire departments more efficient and effective.

Be Safe My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services and is an expert witness. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment