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NC5 Investigates: An Alarming Failure

Putting Smoke Detectors To The Test

Photoelectric detector sounds the alarm first Photoelectric detector sounds the alarm first
Dual photoelectric/ionization detector sounds next Dual photoelectric/ionization detector sounds next
Ionization detector sounds alarm more than seven minutes after photoelectric Ionization detector sounds alarm more than seven minutes after photoelectric
State Rep. Mike Turner State Rep. Mike Turner

Will your smoke detector wake you if there's a fire?

If you have the kind of smoke detector found in most homes, it may not go off.

In fact, our investigation discovered, the most common type of smoke detector has an alarming rate of failure.

Our consumer investigator Jennifer Kraus put them to the test.

Veteran firefighters like Mike Turner will tell you, "Being killed by smoke is a horrible way to go."

So if your house catches on fire in the middle of the night, you want a smoke detector that wakes me up at the first sign of smoke.

Turner says, "Smoke is what kills people. It's rarely that someone gets burned up."

But get this. The kind of smoke detector found in most homes often has trouble detecting the type of smoke that kills.

Jay Fleming, a deputy fire chief with the Boston Fire Department, says, "If the public was aware of it, it could save hundreds of lives every year."

Fleming has spent years studying smoke detectors and, with his help, we put them to the test.

We got three kinds of smoke detectors.

One was an ionization detector. It's the cheapest kind and the type most people have in their homes.

The second kind we tested was a photoelectric detector that costs a few bucks more.

And the third detector was a dual sensor, which is a combination ionization and photoelectric detector.

For our test, along with Fleming, we invited firefighters from the state and Metro -- including Turner, who is also a state representative -- to the Tennessee Fire Academy in Bedford County.

Danny Hunt, with the Metro Fire Department's fire marshal's office, told NewsChannel 5 before the test, "It's going to be interesting."

But still, we could tell even these veteran firefighters were skeptical and they told us they didn't think there would be much of a difference between when the detectors would sound.

Mike Turner's prediction: "I'm going to say 20-25 seconds."

Jeff Huddleston, with the State Fire Marshal's Office, told us, "I think maybe a minute tops."

So with six cameras ready to capture every angle, Chief Fleming stuck a hot soldering iron under the cushion of a couch.

"What we're trying to do is simulate a cigarette in a couch," Fleming said. "This is actually a very common type fire in the U.S."

It's a slow-burning fire that creates a lot of smoke, just like some fires caused by space heaters and electrical fires.

Then we waited.

About five minutes later, we saw the first curl of smoke and started our timer.

That's when Chief Fleming told us, "As you can see, the amount of smoke given off is gradually, very slowly increasing."

At this point, a "Home, Sweet Home" sign handing on the wall was clearly visible and breathing without a mask was easy. But as the minutes passed, it got tougher to breathe as the room started to get visibly smoky.

Then eight minutes and 15 seconds after we first spotted smoke, the photoelectric alarm sounded.

In a real fire, firefighters say, in these conditions, you'd have no trouble getting out alive.

But the other two detectors in our test were silent despite all of the smoke that filled the small room.

It was another two minutes before there was another alarm. This time, it was the combination or dual detector, which sounded 10 minutes and 15 seconds after the test began.

But the ionization detector -- again, the kind found in most homes -- hadn't sounded its alarm.

At this point, Turner told us, "I'm surprised it hadn't gone off yet."

The smoke had grown so much now that the "Home, Sweet Home" sign was hard to see -- and even Chief Fleming, a veteran firefighter, needed his breathing mask.

He told us, "I think people are surprised at how much smoke you can get without having any flames."

At this point in our test, everyone in the room had their breathing masks on, it had gotten very smoky, and the ionization detector still had not gone off.

Assessing the smoke level, Chief Fleming said, "I'm not saying there isn't a single person in this country who can't escape through this kind of smoke, but there's a lot of people who can't."

But still, no alarm from the ionization detector, despite the smoke that intensified every second.

Finally, 15 minutes and 40 seconds into the test, it went off. That was more than seven minutes after the photoelectric alarm -- minutes that the firefighters agreed could be the difference between life and death.

Metro's Danny Hunt said after seeing the test, "That was a real eye-opener."

And the other once-skeptical fire experts on hand for our test admitted that they too were stunned.

Jeff Huddleston from the State Fire Marshal's Office said, "It's just amazing the difference in the two."

And Rep. Mike Turner told us, "I thought once that first one went off, the other two would follow suit and I was really shocked."

Next, Chief Fleming lit a flaming fire.

The makers of ionization smoke detectors say ionization detectors are best when it comes to faster-burning, flaming fires.

But when we put our same three detectors to the test, it wasn't long before alarms were sounding -- and not just one, but all three alarms.

They all went off within seconds of each other.

But remember, you're most likely to die in a smoky fire -- the kind where ionization detectors may fail to go off until it's too late.

Chief Fleming says, "I think since 1990, the failure to recognize this problem is responsible for literally thousands of needless deaths."

Turner says, "That's a lot of lost lives right there."

And he adds that after seeing our tests, he's making the switch to photoelectric. "The technology is out there to save your family. And, that's the bottom line."

Of course, our tests weren't scientific. But federal government scientists have conducted their own tests and they found a difference of as much as 30 minutes between when photoelectric and ionization detectors sounds.

And that's why some key fire prevention groups are now recommending that people switch either to photoelectric or at least to a dual sensor that's both photoelectric and ionization.

Photoelectric detectors are not really much more expensive. Generally they run only about $5 or $6 more.

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