Public/Private Fire Safety Council White Paper:
Home Smoke Alarms and Other Fire Detection and Alarm Equipment

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Executive Summary

In 2003, fire departments responded to 388,500 home structure fires in the United States that claimed the lives of an estimated 3,145 people. Working smoke alarms greatly reduce the likelihood of a residential fire-related fatal injury by providing occupants with early warning and giving them additional time to escape. The smoke alarm strategy, therefore, is to achieve universal home use of effective, reliable fire detection/alarm equipment. (A smoke alarm combines the detector and the alarm in a single unit without use of a central panel.)

The Public/Private Fire Safety Council prepared this paper as the first of a series of white papers that will outline major strategies for reducing the annual death toll from residential fires, specifically home fires. The Public/Private Fire Safety Council is a 16-member council of federal agencies and non-government organizations, created to develop a coordinated national effort to eliminate residential fire deaths by the year 2020.

As highlighted in this white paper, a number of important issues must be addressed to maximize the impact of the smoke alarm strategy on residential fire deaths.

Smoke alarms are still missing in 4% of U.S. homes. This group accounts for 39% of reported home fires and nearly half of all the reported home fire deaths. They represent just over 4 million housing units.

An estimated 20% of U.S. homes have smoke alarms present but none that are working. Nearly all of this 20% involves dead or missing batteries, as opposed to problems with AC power. Nearly half of the households with non-operational smoke alarms that gave a reason cited nuisance alarms or continuous alarming as the reason for disabling the smoke alarm. They represent roughly 21 million housing units and an estimated thirty million or more smoke alarms.

Available research indicates that programs are more successful if smoke alarm distribution is supplemented by direct installation, and combined with supporting education and scheduled follow-up visits. Also important, program evaluations must be designed to refine program features as needed and demonstrate program effectiveness.

The needs of special populations often dictate special features in the design of smoke alarms or in other aspects of smoke alarm programs. These special populations include:

Further research could improve the effectiveness and reliability of smoke alarms through technological means. Improvements could include:

Continued research is needed to improve smoke alarm performance and to improve measurement of smoke alarm performance. A greater understanding of human behavior is needed to inform educational approaches to change behaviors that support the smoke alarm strategy, particularly including the following related behaviors:

Human behavior in residential fire requires careful analysis to determine effective cues, adaptive environments, egress skills development under stressful conditions, and strategies to reduce the learned irrelevance of alarms, due to the high frequency of nuisance alarms, and to increase the perceived value of immediate escape.

Priorities for research and programs need to consider differences in estimated life-saving potential and cost-effectiveness. Standardization and compilations of best practices are established methods of translating research into consistent practice.

With so many agencies and organizations pursuing smoke alarm programs, it makes sense that they should be harmonized and coordinated to avoid duplication and to reinforce effects. This includes coordination and risk-based prioritization on planning, budgeting, scheduling, regional focus, and other decisions, with appropriate consideration of lead times. It extends to regional, state, and local agencies and organizations, as well as national organizations.