A noise worth living with

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Smoke alarms provide first line of fire defense

By Greg Summers

There’s a reason why people lock their doors at night, said Lancaster Fire Department Chief Chris Nunnery.

“Everyone likes to feel safe in their homes,” Nunnery said.

But many of these same home-owners don’t check  smoke alarms to make sure they are working properly as an added safety measure.

And to Nunnery, the principal is the same.

“I don’t think there is any worse feeling in the world after a fire fatality than finding a smoke detector in place with the batteries removed,” he said. “That sticks with you for a long time.”

Nunnery said there is little doubt that smoke alarms save lives.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, 65 percent of fire deaths happen in homes with no smoke alarms or no smoke alarms that work.

The NFPA has declared Oct. 3-9 as Fire Prevention Week.

In an effort to better educate the public about smoke alarms, the association is promoting “Smoke alarms: A sound you can live with” as the 2010 theme.

Lorraine Carli, NFPA vice president, said smoke alarms cut the chance of dying in a fire in half, but that must be properly working to do so.

In about 30 percent of the fires in homes that have smoke alarms, the devices did not work – usually because the batteries were dead, missing or not connected. An estimated 890 lives could be saved each year if all homes had working smoke alarms.

“You’re talking about a $10 investment,” Nunnery said. “I’ve never heard anyone say they were sorry for buying a smoke detector.”

Nunnery said if kitchen fumes or steam sets off a smoke alarm, it could have been mounted in the wrong place. Because of cooking appliances and the generally humid environment of a kitchen, even the best smoke alarms will have repeated false trips.  

The NFPA recommends installing one smoke alarm in every bedroom, outside each separate sleeping level and one on every level of the home.

If a smoke alarm must be installed near the kitchen, use one with a “hush” button, which reduces alarm sensitivity for a short period of time.

If that isn’t an option, an ionization alarm with a hush button or photoelectric alarm, should be used within 20 feet of a cooking appliance.

An ionization smoke alarm is generally more responsive to flaming fires while a photoelectric alarm is generally more responsive to smoldering fires. 

Because smoke rises, the proper place to mount a smoke alarm is near the top of the wall (about a foot from the ceiling) or on the ceiling at least four inches from the nearest wall.

Keith Wilson, training officer for Lancaster County Fire Service, said the biggest mistake homeowners make with smoke alarms isn’t putting them in the wrong place; it’s not periodically replacing them.

Wilson said most smoke alarms have a lifespan of eight to 10 years. After this time, the entire unit should be replaced.

It is a good idea to write the date of purchase with a marker on the inside of your alarm so you will know when to replace it. Some of the newer alarms already have the purchase date written inside. In any event, Wilson always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for replacement.

Wilson said it’s also a good idea to clean smoke alarms when replacing the batteries. Dust and insects can collect in the sensing chamber of the alarm. An accumulation of dust in the sensing chamber can cause the unit to chirp.

To clean a smoke alarm:

– Remove the alarm from the wall or ceiling and hold the unit on its side. There is a gap between the front cover and the back plate. Take a vacuum cleaner with a crevice tool and clean all around the gap area. Pay most attention to the sensor, which you will see in the gap area. The sensor looks like a small tin can with slots in it.

“Some people mistakenly think they work forever, but that’s not the case,” Wilson said. “They’re just like anything else and wear out.”

To make sure a smoke alarm is working properly:

– Test smoke alarms at least once per month with the test button and make sure that everyone in the house recognizes the sound.

– If an alarm “chirps,” it is warning that the battery is low and should be replaced right away.

– Replace all smoke alarms, including alarms that use 10-year batteries and hard-wired smoke alarms when they are 10 years old (or sooner) if they don’t properly respond when tested.

City residents who have questions about or need help in checking a smoke alarm should call (803) 283-4385.

“We’ll gladly send someone out,” Nunnery said. “There are plenty of successes like a local case where three kids heard the alarm go off. They knew what to do and that got five people out of burning house. That’s the kind of stories you like remembering.”  

County residents who have questions about or need help in checking a smoke alarm, should call (803) 283-4385.

Wilson said Lancaster County Fire Service and the Lancaster Fire Department do have access to a limited number of smoke alarms for those who can’t afford them.

“We will forward it to the fire department in their area to get them some help,” Wilson said. “You can also directly contact a local volunteer firefighter.”

2010 Fire Safety Expo

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Walmart parking lot, 805 Highway 9 Bypass West (University Place)

HOW MUCH: Free; there will be fire trucks, food, a playhouse for children, face painting, games and blood pressure checks, along with safety information from Lancaster Police and Fire departments, Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, S.C. Department of Natural Resources and Lancaster County Emergency Medical Services.

DETAILS: (803) 283-4385