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 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 report is disturbing because it gives the wrong impression. Obviously the statistics regarding fire fatalities are devastating, but the report failed to adequately define its terms, and failed to differentiate between professionally installed alarms and homeowner installed ones. Therefore, the rhetoric is skewed. The U.S.F.A.'s report provides detailed statistics regarding residential fires, but as we all know there is a huge difference between battery operated home owner installed or smoke detectors installed in new construction that are wired but not monitored and code mandated installed smoke detectors that are monitored.

The U.S.F.A.'s report used terms such as; ‘operating smoke alarms,' ‘operational alarms,' ‘working alarms' and ‘alarms which operated.' These are non-technical terms which can also be misleading, like the term ‘false alarm.' However the U.S.F.A.'s report could not obscure the fact that issues associated with fire exits and adequate means of egress and inadequate alarm annunciation are both important factors in both residential and multiple dwelling fire fatalities.

The Public/Private Fire Safety Council Report

A report by The Public/Private Fire Safety Council, released in April 2006, better represents an accurate picture of the situation. Here is a portion of the Executive Summary of this report which may be viewed and downloaded form the NFPA website (

In 2003, fire departments responded to 388,500 home structure fires in the United States that claimed the lives of an estimated 3,145 people.

Working smoke alarms greatly reduce the likelihood of a residential fire-related fatal injury by providing occupants with early warning and giving them additional time to escape.

The smoke alarm strategy, therefore, is to achieve universal home use of effective, reliable fire detection/alarm equipment. (A smoke alarm combines the detector and the alarm in a single unit without use of a central panel.)

Smoke alarms are still missing in 4% of U.S. homes (over 4 million housing units). This group accounts for 39% of reported home fires and nearly half of all the reported home fire deaths. An estimated 20% of U.S. homes have smoke alarms present but none that are working.

Nearly all of this 20% involves dead or missing batteries, (as opposed to problems with AC power). Nearly half of the households with non-operational smoke alarms who gave a reason, cited nuisance alarms or continuous alarming as the reason for disabling the smoke alarm. (This group amounts to 21 million housing units and an estimated 30 million or more smoke alarms.)

Available research indicates that programs are more successful if smoke alarm distribution is supplemented by direct installation, and combined with supporting education and scheduled follow-up visits. Also important, program evaluations must be designed to refine program features as needed and demonstrate program effectiveness.

The needs of special populations often dictate special features in the design of smoke alarms or in other aspects of smoke alarm programs. These special populations include:

• Children, differentiating young

children from older children.

• Older adults.

• Disabled populations (addressed by

disability type).

• Non-English speakers.

• Adults with low literacy levels in

their native language.

• Renters, whose protection may be

partly or wholly the responsibility

of a landlord.

The Answer Is A Big “Yes”

Professionally installed smoke detectors provide a level of safety which far exceeds that of the D.I.Y. and contractor installed models. The reasons are many:

• Fire professionals will select the most appropriate type of detector for an application.

• Fire professionals will determine the correct number of detectors required to achieve adequate protection.

• Fire professionals will install the detectors in the most effective locations.

• Fire professionals will test the detector for proper operation once it is installed.

Besides the detectors' heightened levels of performance, manufacturers are supplying equipment that installs faster, requires less system infrastructure, and are adaptable to a wider variety of environmental requirements. The products that appear on these pages illustrate the advances made in technology, as well as newly deigned ease of installation and maintenance features.