After recent blazes, fire marshals stress smoke-detector upkeep

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published February 27, 2013

BERKLEY/FERNDALE — In light of a pair of fires that took place this month in houses without working smoke detectors, Berkley Fire Marshal Pete Kelly wants to remind homeowners about the importance of keeping their own smoke detectors up and running.

“The vast majority of fatal fires in the U.S. occur in homes that don’t have any functional smoke detectors,” Kelly explained. “It makes perfect sense, because if you’re alerted about danger in your home, then you’re usually able to make it out safely. If you’re not, then you usually aren’t.”

According to a report by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), roughly two-thirds of home-fire deaths reported in the U.S. from 2005 to 2009 took place in properties without working smoke alarms. The study also indicates that smoke alarm failures typically result from missing, disconnected or dead batteries, and in about one-fifth of U.S. homes with smoke alarms, none of them are actually working.

On Feb. 2, a massive fire destroyed a Berkley home on Catalpa Drive after flames ignited in the basement and quickly spread to the rest of the house. The family of five was lucky enough to escape without injury, but the damage to their home was so severe that it is now unlivable and may soon have to be demolished.

“Since it was only about 6 o’clock in the evening and everyone at home was awake, they were able to make it out of there alive, even without any working smoke detectors,” Kelly said. “But they were the exception, rather than the rule.”

Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 14, a man on Columbia Road and his teenage daughter made it out of their house after a fire that was caused by smoking in bed. The man noticed that his mattress was smoldering, Kelly said, so he doused it with water, thinking that the problem was solved, and went to sleep. However, he awoke later that night to heavy smoke from the still-smoldering mattress and ran upstairs to wake up his sleeping daughter.

“They are certainly very fortunate that the situation did not become a tragedy,” Kelly said. “That was the perfect recipe for a fatal fire: one that breaks out while the residents are sleeping and there are no working smoke detectors in the house to alert them.”

Kelly also recalled a prior Berkley fire in which the homeowner said that he had removed his smoke detectors while he was painting the house, then forgot to plug them back in. The subsequent blaze was highly damaging but fortunately did not turn fatal.

Ferndale Fire Marshal Brian Batten said that around eight or nine years ago, shortly after he became fire marshal, the city experienced two fatal fires over a short time span that resulted in three combined deaths. In both cases, there were no working smoke alarms in the home.

On the flipside, about five years ago, a little girl in Ferndale was able to save the lives of her entire family, thanks to smoke detectors. Not long after talking her mother into having them installed, an enormous fire broke out that completely engulfed their home. The little girl, her mom and her sister narrowly escaped the horrific blaze, and Batten is certain that they would have perished, if not for the smoke detectors.

“Smoke detection is so critical to every homeowner,” he said. “Typically, after a smoke alarm goes off, you have less than a minute to get out of the house. That’s why it’s so important to have that early warning system in place. The biggest problem we have around here is the maintenance of smoke alarms: Way too many people remove the battery and then forget to replace it.”

According to Batten, who serves on the executive board of the Michigan Fire Inspectors Society, smoke detection was not regulated by the state until 1974, when a law was implemented requiring that all new homes built from that point forward have smoke detectors installed on every floor. That law was expanded in 2003 to mandate the same requirements for all Michigan homes.

Laws like this have proven effective in Michigan and across the nation, Batten said. Since 1974, the number of fire deaths in the U.S. has been cut nearly in half to an average of 3,000 to 3,500 per year. Still, functional smoke alarms remain a problem. Batten noted that, while more than 90 percent of U.S. homes have smoke detectors installed, only about half of those detectors are working properly.

“What kills most people in house fires is not the burns — it’s the smoke inhalation, and it doesn’t take much for it to really affect you,” he explained. “Most fires are not all that destructive, but the smoke will spread through the entire house very quickly. Sometimes, when you hit that smoke, it’s like hitting a brick wall. It will knock you to the ground, and you can become incapacitated in no time.”

To ensure that residents are as safe as possible, Kelly recommended that homeowners change their smoke detectors’ batteries twice a year at the same time that they change their clocks for daylight saving time. For those who don’t want to be installing new batteries so frequently, Batten pointed out that there are now lithium batteries on the market that will last for either 5 or 10 years and are an ideal fit for smoke detectors. Kelly also suggested that homeowners test their smoke detectors once a month and replace them every 10 years, while Batten encouraged them to also look into the possibility of installing a home sprinkler system.

Batten noted that Ferndale has had a smoke alarm program in place for many years for low-income, disabled and senior residents, who often have broken or outdated alarms dating back to the ’70s and ’80s. The Ferndale Fire Department will provide all those who qualify with free replacements and come out to their homes to install them for free.

The two marshals invited homeowners to call their respective fire departments with any additional questions. Given the proven life-saving benefits of smoke detectors, they believe that their importance cannot be overstated.

“The bottom line is that having a working smoke detector on every level of your home will give you an infinitely better chance of escaping a fire with your life, and with your home intact,” Kelly said. “There’s really no substitute for it.”