Too Many Come Up Short on Smoke Alarms

May 30, 2012, 5:58 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth


A recent study in the journal Injury Prevention by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy finds that one in three households in Baltimore misreports how many working smoke alarms they have in their homes, with most reporting that they had more than they actually did. “Forty percent of all residential fire deaths in the U.S. occur in homes with no smoke alarms, and another 23 percent occur in homes where an alarm is present but not functioning,” said study author Wendy Shields, MPH, an assistant scientist with the Center.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends all residential homes have a smoke alarm in every bedroom, outside every sleeping area and on every level of the home.

The Hopkins researchers conducted interviews with more than 600 households selected from 12 census tracts in East Baltimore, Md., a relatively low-income area, and tested the alarms in the houses. Some households that over-reported working alarms were contacted by phone after the home visits. “The phone interviews give us some important insights,” said Andrea Gielen, ScD, ScM, director of the Center. “Particularly troubling is the fact that one in three of the follow-up respondents indicated they reported greater coverage than they actually had because they knew they should.”

Shields say that given the huge public health toll of residential fires in the United States, “public education efforts should include specific instructions on how to check alarm functionality and on the importance of having an alarm on every level of the house." Shields also encouraged more widespread use of newer 10-year lithium battery alarms.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Sharon Gamache, Senior Program Manager for High-Risk Outreach Programs at the National Fire Protection Association, about improving alarm coverage for house and apartment dwellers. Gamache says that in rental properties, landlords are responsible for supplying the correct number of working alarms, though testing and battery replacement can be the responsibility of the tenant. For home owners, effective alarms can be purchased for as little as $6 or $7 each, though they may not have some newer features of more expensive smoke alarms such as interconnectivity, which means that if one unit detects smoke, the alarms connected to it will sound their alarms as well.

Gamache says fire departments typically have installation programs and will dispatch staff to install and check alarms, and may also have distribution programs either year-round or as a special event, especially for lower-income families. [A writer for NewPublicHealth, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., recently called the fire department when a kitchen oven caught fire. Firemen noticed there was no alarm on the kitchen level and provided one from the fire truck and installed it, free of charge.]

Health departments can also be a resource for free or low cost alarms. The Kansas Department of Health, for example, gives smoke alarms to community groups for distribution based on funds available. In Gastonia, N.C., the fire and health department joined forces to distribute free alarms to residents who don’t have them. The alarms are free but the department suggests that people who can afford to, make a contribution for households that cannot.

>>Read about choosing and installing smoke detectors from the National Fire Protection Association.

>>Read more on injury prevention, including a recent NewPublicHealth interview with Andrea Gielen, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, on preventing motor vehicle accidents.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.