Fire Issues: Do Smoke Detectors Really Save Lives?

While it is a universally accepted fact that smoke alarms play a vital role in saving lives, the importance of professionally installed fire alarm systems is not. Two recent reports studied the situation, but conveyed rather disparate...


While it is a universally accepted fact that smoke alarms play a vital role in saving lives, the importance of professionally installed fire alarm systems is not. Two recent reports studied the situation, but conveyed rather disparate impressions.

One report is by the U.S.F.A. (United States Fire Administration) and the other is by the Public/Private Fire Safety Council. Both reports indicated that smoke detectors were in 96% of U.S. households and fatalities still occurred. However, one of the studies, in the opinion of the Security Dealer staff, is flawed. The U.S.F.A report, “Investigation of Fatal Residential Structure Fires with Operational Smoke Alarms” goes to great lengths to study the situation but it focused on the wrong aspects and failed to arrive at the right conclusions.

U.S.F.A. Report Statistics

The U.S.F.A. report states: alarms operated in 34 percent of fatal apartment fires and in 12 percent of fatal one- and two-family dwelling fires. Thirty-seven percent of the victims of fatal residential structure fires with working smoke alarms were sleeping at the time of death. An additional 29 percent of victims were trying to escape the fire at the time of their fatal injury.

Primary Causes of Residential Fires are: Smoking, Arson, and Open Flame—and account for three-quarters of fatal residential structure fires when the alarms operated. Smoking accounts for 32 percent of these fires. Arson (incendiary and suspicious) fires account for 24 percent, and open flame fires (those caused by matches, lighters, candles, and the like) account for an additional 19 percent.

As a reference, during the 2001–2004 period, arson (25 percent), smoking (23 percent), and open flame (14 percent) were also the leading causes of all fatal residential structure fires, which includes the structures that did not have working smoke alarms. Smoking plays a substantially larger role in these fatal fires in apartments (45 percent in apartments versus 22 percent in one- and two-family dwellings), while open flame fires play a larger role in one- and two-family dwellings (22 percent in one- and two-family dwellings versus 14 percent in apartments).

In a substantial portion (29 percent) of these fatal fires, fire spread was confined to the room of origin, unlike that of all fatal residential structure fires, where most fatal fires (53 percent), the entire building is involved in the fire.

Smoke alarms were present in approximately 60 percent of fatal residential structure fires. Of those fatal fires with an alarm present, the detector operated 39 percent of the time. Together, these statistics indicate that alarms were present and operated in 23 percent of fatal residential structure fires.

Not surprisingly, sleeping was most likely to affect children (82 percent). Older adults were sleeping (32 percent) or physically disabled (33 percent). Alcohol impairment was a substantial factor in all other victims (those between the ages of 15 and 64) as was physical disability (15 percent)

In 36 percent of the fatalities where a factor contributing to injury was noted, exit problems contributed to the fatality. Exits blocked by smoke or flames were noted in 27 percent of the fatalities. Smoke obscured the vision of the victim for 19 percent of the victims. Older adults were more affected by this (24 percent) than others. Over half (55 percent) of the child fatalities had egress or exit problems.

Although nearly 96 percent of U.S. households have smoke alarms, fatalities can (and do) occur even when a smoke alarm operates. Operable smoke alarms have been credited with saving many lives, but as in any emergency situation, it is critical to have a well-rehearsed escape plan and know more than one way out of any room or building.

The alarm operated in less than one-quarter of all fatal residential structure fires—a troublesome statistic, since alarms are designed to save lives. The statistics indicate that smoke detectors in residences are less effective lifesavers than those installed in multiple dwellings; but the presence of smoke detectors mitigated the spread of fire in both types of structures.

This content continues onto the next page...