September 22, 2023

National Fire Prevention Month and the Smoke Detector

by Professor Bob Cook

The smoke detector has been around since the late 1930s when a Swiss physicist, Walter Jaeger, was working on a device to detect poisonous gases. His device failed repeatedly and in frustration, he lit a cigarette. The smoke from the cigarette triggered the device and the rest, as they say, is history. Initially, the smoke detector required a high power supply; however, as the scientific community and technology advanced, the smoke detector power was reduced to battery power. It was during the late 1960s and early 1970s that smoke detectors underwent major changes in both detection abilities and reduction is power consumption.

Statistics have proven time and time again that smoke alarms do in fact save lives. According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the number of deaths in fires for 2014 was 2,765 up from 2,755 in 2013. This increase was largely due to the absence of working smoke detectors in residential dwellings. Many of the recorded deaths in 2014 could have been prevented with a working smoke detector.

Since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been celebrated during the month of October, though most fire departments have set aside the entire month as Fire Prevention Month. October 9 is especially significant: you may recall a story about a horrific fire that began in Chicago, Illinois on October 8, 1871 and burned the city down until being put out on October 9. That fire has been rumored to start by a cow kicking over an oil lantern in a barn, spurring one of the greatest fires in American history.

Here are a few tips to remain safe and protected from residential fires:

  1. Ensure that working smoke alarms/detectors are located outside every bedroom.
  2. Ensure that there is at least one working detector located at the bottom of stairways leading up to the sleeping area.
  3. Ensure that there is at least one working detector located at the bottom of the basement stairs.
  4. Ensure that batteries in all battery-powered detectors are changed yearly (typically at Daylight Saving Time).
  5. Ensure that you have one portable hand-held fire extinguisher located close to the kitchen and other cooking areas.
  6. Conduct a weekly smoke detector test on each independent detector and from one unit of a hard-wired system.
  7. NFPA recommends replacing smoke detectors every 10 years.
  8. Make sure you know the age of your smoke detectors, generally stamped on the inside back plate.