More than 90 percent of American homes today have smoke detectors. Since their widespread introduction in the 1980s, smoke detectors have cut the number of home fire deaths in half. Except for changing batteries and quelling an occasional nuisance alarm, most homeowners don't think twice about the white plastic boxes affixed to their walls or ceilings. That's why last year's news reports on smoke detectors caught homeowners off guard. In tests done by a television station in Dallas - and replicated by other media - children either slept through screaming alarms or took longer than expected to hear them and respond. This development prompted the Consumer Product Safety Commission and other agencies to study how well children and the elderly hear smoke alarms. It has also put fire-safety officials on the defensive. The smoke alarm, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, is "the cornerstone of fire-safety technology in the home." But are the smoke alarms in your house really protecting you, your family and your property? Yes, but only up to a point, fire officials say. The controversy over smoke alarms and children highlights the danger of relying on one piece of technology for total fire protection. It underscores the need, they stress, to look at detectors as just part of an overall strategy that includes family fire drills and escape plans. Underlying this strategy are measures to prevent a fire from starting in the first place. "More research needs to be done on the topic of children and alarms," says Judy Comoletti, public education director at the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass. "But we don't want people to panic and think smoke alarms aren't good." What the NFPA does want is for homeowners to spend 20 minutes or so conducting a room-to-room fire-safety inspection. If you live with children, make them part of the process. The goal is to identify potential hazards and correct the problems, rather than relying on technology. Start in the kitchen. Cooking accidents are the leading cause of home fires, Comoletti says. The area around the oven and range top should be clear of combustibles, such as paper towels. If small children live in your house, create a 3-foot kid-free zone around the stove. Kids can help. If they are old enough, let them use a yardstick to help you measure off the buffer. You may even want to outline the space on the floor with release tape. Explain why it's dangerous to be inside the zone. "If you involve children, they are more likely to understand," Comoletti says. Electrical cords dangling from countertop appliances present an obvious hazard, if small children can grab hold and tug a hot toaster. Less obvious are poorly designed power switches on the most common appliances. Comoletti recalled the story of a woman who piled paper bags filled with groceries on the counter, a typical practice following a trip to the supermarket. One of the bags brushed up against the knob on a toaster oven, turning it on and eventually setting the bag on fire. It may make sense to unplug appliances with hair-trigger power switches when they're not in use. Continue the inspection by looking for hazards in other rooms. Here are a few top things to look for: Candles: Many people enjoy the aroma and soft light from burning candles. But make sure they are set in sturdy holders and not left unattended while lit. Extension cords: Never feed them under a carpet, where heat buildup can ignite a fire, or across a doorway, where insulation can be worn away. Portable heaters: Space heaters need to be three feet from any combustible surface. Turn them off at bedtime or when you leave home. Details on how to conduct a home inspection can be found online at www.sparky.org. Find it under Family Stuff. The inspection can be downloaded and printed. Two other sites with helpful information are www.usfa.fema.gov and www.nfpa.org. Inspections should be a first step to developing and practicing an escape plan. Remember, smoke can be blinding and toxic. You may not have much time. Fire officials recommend that everyone in the home participate in an escape plan. Consider which way you will go, and what you would do if your primary exit were blocked by smoke or fire. Agree on a safe place to meet outside the home. After reviewing the plan with your family, do a walk-through during the day. Then conduct a fire drill at night. If you have small children, activate the alarm while they are sleeping. Although smoke alarms have become commonplace, research into how children react is relatively new. A university study in Australia showed children under 15 years old were likely to sleep through smoke alarms. In Wisconsin, an eight-month study done with children in an elementary school produced similar findings. The questions raised by these studies call for research, according to Jim Shannon, the NFPA's president. But homeowners shouldn't wait for the outcome. "In the near term," Shannon wrote recently, "the lessons parents should take from these news broadcasts is that they won't know how their children will react to the smoke alarm until they (have) tested their response to it. Home fire drills are essential." While smoke detectors aren't the total answer, it's clear that they form the baseline for home fire protection. What has become less clear over time, however, is how to define that baseline level of protection. It's not enough to know simply that your home has smoke alarms. You should also ask: How many alarms, where are they located, and what kind are they? For example: The NFPA standard for the number of alarms in an existing home is to have one on every level and outside each sleeping area. In new homes, the standard requires an AC-powered alarm inside each bedroom, as well as outside each sleeping area and on every level. The AC-powered units must be interconnected. These standards are minimum requirements, and some state fire marshals, as well as some smoke-detector manufacturers, suggest additional units in hallways, kitchens, furnace rooms and other areas. If you live in an older home, you may want to beef up coverage. Deciding which kind of smoke detector to buy has also become more complex, as manufacturers add advanced features. Check out the selection in a large discount or home-improvement store to see what's available in your area. Some newer alarms include a hush button that you can push to silence a nuisance alarm temporarily. This feature is useful for a detector mounted near or in the kitchen, where routine smoke from cooking may set off the alarm. Another design allows you to silence the alarm or test it, using the TV remote control. For detectors mounted high on a cathedral ceiling or in a stairwell, this is a clever idea. Combination detectors may also be worth considering. Some run on AC power but have a battery backup, for peace of mind during an electrical outage. Several models combine smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors, desirable in any home that heats with a furnace or other combustion equipment. You'll also want to become familiar with the difference between ionization and photoelectric alarms. Ion alarms react to changes in ionized particles passing through the detector. They are most sensitive to small particles, which are given off by fires that burn rapidly and spread quickly, such as paper burning in a wastebasket. Photo alarms react to how smoke affects light. They are best at detecting large particles, which tend to be produced in greater amounts by smoldering fires, such as a cigarette on a couch. NFPA standards don't pick one over the other. As long as the detector is approved by Underwriters Laboratories, the agency says either technology should give early warning. Some newer detectors combine both technologies, however, so they may be the best bet if you're looking to upgrade your protection. Most people know to use a fresh, 9-volt battery and replace it at least once a year. But some newer models eliminate the annual maintenance. They contain lithium batteries, which are expected to last 10 years. That's convenient, because fire-safety officials point out that smoke alarms are appliances, and they don't last forever. If your smoke detectors are more than 10 years old, they say, it's time to replace them. You've developed a good escape plan. You have an effective array of smoke detectors. You may wonder: Besides calling the fire department, how can I put out a fire if a blaze does break out in my home? The ultimate answer these days is to install a home sprinkler system. Commercial buildings have had sprinkler systems for years; now they are becoming more common in homes. A growing number of communities, particularly in the fast-growing South and West, have ordinances that require sprinklers in new construction. Home sprinklers are slow to catch on, however. Most homeowners worry about the cost and may have an image of every room in their house being flooded when someone lights a match. These are old stereotypes, according to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition. On average, the group says, home sprinklers add 1 to 1.5 percent of the total building cost in new construction. And only the sprinkler closest to a fire operates. In fact, the sprinkler uses a fraction of the water that a typical fire department hose releases. More information is available at www.homefiresprinkler.org. Despite the evolution of sprinklers, many homeowners like to have a more basic firefighting tool on hand, a home fire extinguisher - particularly in the kitchen. Just don't be lulled into a false sense of security, the NFPA warns. Home extinguishers are for battling small fires only. Basic models will discharge within 10 seconds or so. Make sure your back is to an exit, in case you need to get out quickly. Again, your local hardware or home-improvement store is a good place to get educated. Buy an extinguisher that's rated for class-ABC fires, which means it will put out anything from paper to gasoline to electrical blazes. And most of all, understand how to use it. "When you have a fire," says Comoletti at the NFPA, "that's not the time to be reading the instructions." Tux Turkel is a freelance writer based in Yarmouth, Maine.
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