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Posted February 27, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Smoke signals: Home alarms, detectors need to be checked often, properly

Jordan Dillon, a Warren County firefighter and EMT
Jordan Dillon, a Warren County firefighter and EMT, installs a smoke alarm. Smoke alarms should be installed in every level of the home, especially near sleeping areas. Dennis Grundman/Daily

reading material
The Warren County Fire Department hands out reading material along with a smoke alarm. Dennis Grundman/Daily

By Linwood Outlaw III -- Daily Staff Writer

It may seem like a tedious task, but properly maintaining a smoke detector on a regular basis -- or simply having one in the house at all -- can ultimately prove to be a life-saving decision.

Working smoke alarms, according to the National Fire Protection Association, can cut the chance of dying in a house fire in half. In fact, about 65 percent of home fire deaths from 2000 to 2004 happened in homes with no working smoke alarms.

"It's no question they're a life-saving, early warning system," said Warren County Fire and Rescue Chief Richard Mabie. "The biggest advantage [of having a smoke detector] is certainly at nighttime when you're sleeping."

Smoke alarms should be installed in every level of the home, especially near sleeping areas, said Heather DeHaven, public education specialist for the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Department.

DeHaven said the true value of having a smoke detector was evident on Jan. 21, when a Frederick County family was saved from an early morning blaze largely because a working alarm was inside the residence.

"One of our fire marshals attributed the family's safety and limited property damage to the smoke alarms, which made it possible for the residents to escape and notify firefighters quickly," DeHaven said.

According to a new study released this month by the fire protection agency, fire departments in the United States responded to an average of 378,600 home structure fires annually from 2003 to 2006. The fires resulted in an average of 2,850 civilian deaths, 13,090 civilian injuries and $6.1 billion in property damage. Although smoke alarms were present inside 52 percent of the reported home fires, nonworking smoke alarms were attributed to 63 percent of the home fire deaths, according to the report.

DeHaven said smoke alarms should be tested at least once a month. She said batteries should also be changed frequently, particularly when changing your clocks for daylight-saving time.

Batteries should never be disconnected for any reason, she said.

Often times, smoke alarm failure is attributed to improper installation or placement, dead or disconnected batteries, defective units and lack of cleaning. Some smoke alarms connected to household electrical systems may not have backup batteries and should be tested on a monthly basis, experts say.

"It is also important to dust or vacuum regularly so that your smoke alarm will function properly," DeHaven said.

Most smoke alarms installed today have a life span between eight and 10 years, and units should be replaced after such time, according to the U.S. Fire Administration's Web site.

Smoke alarms generally fall under two basic brands: ionization and photoelectric. Ionization alarms tend to sound more quickly when a fast-moving fire occurs. Photoelectric alarms, meanwhile, are better at sensing smoldering and smoky fires, according to fire administration officials.

In an effort to assist local families with combating deadly blazes, Frederick County offers a free smoke alarm installation program that is open to any resident free of charge. DeHaven said the county has 200 alarms available for distribution to the public throughout the campaign, which will run through October.

The Warren County Fire Department also offers a free smoke detector installation program. The department can also send volunteers or other officials to homes or businesses to conduct a courtesy fire inspection upon request, Mabie said.

"We normally don't turn anybody down. We're mainly targeting low-income people ... But, we try to make it work for anybody that needs [a smoke detector]," Mabie said.

The Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Department also received a grant from the Virginia Department of Health to distribute 2,000 free smoke detectors to local residents, according to its official Web site.

For more information on Warren County's smoke alarm installation program or to schedule an appointment, call 636-3830. Those who wish to apply for Frederick County's program, meanwhile, can call 665-5618. For information on Shenandoah County's smoke alarm program, call 459-6167.

Contact Linwood Outlaw III at loutlaw@nvdaily.com

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