interFIRE Home interFIRE Home interFIRE VR Support Training Calendar Training Center Resource Center Message Board Insurance Info

U.S. Experience with Smoke Alarms and Other Fire Alarms

Marty Ahrens
NFPA, Fire Analysis and Research Division
#1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 02269
January 2000
© 2000 National Fire Protection Association

This executive summary is designed to give the reader a quick overview regarding the effectiveness and the use of smoke alarms. To order the complete report please contact Nancy Schwartz, NFPA, One-Stop Data Shop at or 617-984-7450 (phone). The cost of the report is $27.00 for NFPA members; $30 for nonmembers. There is no charge to the fire service.

Executive Summary

Half of the home fire deaths occur in the 6% of homes with no smoke alarms.

As of 1997, 15 of every 16 (94%) U.S. homes had at least one smoke alarm. However, 1997 fire data show that 38% of the home fires reported to U.S. fire departments and 51% of the home fire deaths still occurred in the now small share of homes with no smoke alarms. In three of every ten reported fires in smoke alarm-equipped homes, the devices didnít work. Smoke alarms did not sound in half of the fire deaths that resulted from fires in homes equipped with these devices. Thus, more than two-fifths of the home fires and only one in four home fire deaths occurred in homes in which smoke alarms sounded.

Homes with smoke alarms (whether or not the alarms were operational) typically have a death rate that is about 40-50% less than the rate for homes without alarms.

In 1992, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission sent surveyors to people's homes to find out how common smoke alarms were and what portion of these devices were working in the general population's homes. In one of every five homes that had at least one smoke alarm installed, not a single one was working. This is a smaller share than what is seen in homes with reported fires, but it is still too high. When homes without smoke alarms are added to homes with only non-working alarms, we see that one-quarter of U.S. households do not have the protection of even one working smoke alarm.

Although households without smoke alarms are slightly more likely to be poor, non-white or headed by an adult over 65 years old, the principal common feature is a much greater tendency to have reported fires. Households with smoke alarms can discover and control a larger share of the fires they have without involving the fire department. This influences the statistics. The usual socioeconomic factors correlated with fire risk are less useful as predictors of smoke alarm usage.

Smoke alarm failures usually result from dead, missing or disconnected batteries.

When smoke alarms donít work, it is usually because the batteries are dead, disconnected or missing. People are most likely to remove or disconnect batteries because of nuisance activations. People need to test the alarm every month to make sure the batteries are still working and to replace the battery every year.

Fortunately, the percentage of smoke alarms that are non-working has leveled off, so the percentage of households with at least one working smoke alarm has followed an upward trend in most years. This is encouraging.

Strategies to ensure that smoke alarms continue to work after installation have not been evaluated in the field, but wired-in (or hard-wired) systems do not need new batteries (except for back-up in power outages), do not permit removal of their primary power sources for use elsewhere, and are statistically much less susceptible to power source interruptions. At present, most homes have battery-powered smoke alarms, which are not interconnected. A single station smoke alarm may not be heard on other floors or in other rooms.

Follow these tips.

NFPA's Learn Not to Burn® Foundation's Technical Advisory Council issued these recommendations in 1989 and 1991 for the testing and maintenance of smoke alarms:

ē Install new batteries in all smoke alarms once a year on the day you change your clock from daylight to standard time or when the alarm chirps to warn that the battery is dying.

ē Replace all batteries immediately upon moving into a new home.

ē Test units monthly, in accordance with NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code. Test the units using the test button or an approved smoke substitute, and clean the units, both in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions. Do not use an open-flame device for testing because of the danger the flame could pose.

The households with smoke alarms that donít work now outnumber the households with no alarms by a substantial margin. Any program to ensure adequate protection must include smoke alarm maintenance. Although most homes have at least one smoke alarm, many homes do not have a unit on every floor. Also, many people forget that a smoke alarmís sole function is to sound the warning. People need to develop and practice escape plans so that if the alarm sounds, they can get out quickly. Because smoke alarms alert occupants to fires that are still relatively small, some people attempt to fight these fires themselves. Unfortunately, some of these attempts are unsuccessful, either due to rapid fire spread or inappropriate methods of fire control. Meanwhile, precious escape time is lost.

Detection and alarm systems are also needed in many occupancies other than homes. Public assembly properties, store and office properties, and storage properties stand out as occupancies where the majority of fires occur in places without smoke or heat alarms and more than one-fifth of the units present are estimated to be non-operational when fire occurs.


Home | interFIRE VR Support | Training Calendar | Training Center | Resource Center | Message Board | Insurance Info
Sponsorship Opportunities
Web Site Designed for 800 x 600 by Stonehouse Media Incorporated® Copyright © 2024 All Rights Reserved.