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Fire preparedness is more than making sure the detector beeps

October 30, 2005|James Carey and Morris Carey | Associated Press

It's that time of year again when days grow shorter, nights longer and, for most of the U.S., clocks "fell back" an hour this morning.

This twice-annual time change serves as an excellent reminder to replace smoke-detector batteries. Though valuable, changing the battery in a smoke detector is only one step in ensuring that this life-saving device does its job.

If you don't have smoke detectors, install them. A smoke detector should be installed in each bedroom and on every level of your home.

If you do have smoke detectors, make sure they are in good working order.

When it comes to maintaining your smoke detectors, it doesn't stop with battery-changing. Every smoke detector should be tested at least once a month. The detectors are equipped with a test button that, when pressed and held down for a few seconds, will activate the alarm.

Use a safe, contained source of smoke -- such as incense or "synthetic smoke" in an aerosol can -- to test the detector.

If your smoke detectors are more than 10 years old, consider replacing them. The National Fire Protection Agency recommends that residential smoke alarms be replaced after 10 years due to the accumulation of dust, dirt and debris.

A smoke alarm works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That's more than 87,000 hours over a 10-year period. It makes sense to be safe and replace your smoke alarm just as you would any other household appliance that has reached the end of its useful life.

With smoke detectors, cleanliness is important. A dusty or lint-laden smoke detector can't do its job properly. It should be vacuumed with an upholstery attachment periodically to remove dust buildup. Keep in mind that a smoke detector is particle-sensitive. Even if it tests as operational, a dusty smoke detector might not operate correctly.

Simply installing and maintaining smoke detectors may not offer your family the level of protection that new technology can provide. A recently released report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission on the audibility of smoke alarms found that linking, or interconnecting, smoke alarms could provide an earlier warning to fire and smoke. The study also found that wireless technology could be a solution to better protecting American homes.

The two-year study concluded that the location of a home's smoke alarms, as well as variables like the home's layout and whether children or older adults, or both, live there, determine how well and when a family will hear a smoke alarm.

With an interconnected device, when one alarm detects smoke, it triggers all other alarms to sound. The immediate reaction provides more warning in more places. There is, on average, only three minutes to escape a house fire after the first smoke alarm goes off.

For several years, nonprofit agencies have been researching whether children under 16 sleep too soundly to wake to the sound of a traditional smoke alarm. In addition, America's population is aging rapidly, bringing about questions regarding age-related hearing and mobility loss. Alternative devices, such as lower-frequency alarms or a vocal warning, may be more effective at waking children and older adults, and could be used to supplement traditional alarms in caregivers' rooms.

The findings also refer to a 2002 CPSC-sponsored study by the Naval Research Laboratory, which reported that wireless technology could offer a lower-cost alternative for installing interconnected smoke alarms in existing homes.

Currently, interconnected smoke alarm systems are wired into a home during its construction, and retrofitting a home involves significant rewiring and renovation. Nearly 100 million American homes either don't have interconnected alarms or remain under-protected.

Brought to market only this summer, these innovative products will enable families to quickly and easily install interconnected smoke alarms, and will include features aimed at providing additional warnings to children and older adults.

Installing smoke alarms is the first step, but families must also know how to escape. Families should create and frequently practice a fire-escape plan. Make sure everyone, including children, knows what the smoke alarm sounds like.

Practice the escape plan during the day and at night when family members are asleep to see if everyone responds. If an older child or adult doesn't wake up, assign an adult to wake and assist that individual in the event of a fire. Always assist younger children.

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