Smoke Alarm Update – January, 2022

Push button to test smoke alarm
Is this what your alarm looks like?

It’s a new year. January is always a good time to “reset” and think about setting new priorities. Over the past couple of weeks I took the time to “think longer term” about helping organize a neighborhood emergency group. I welcomed that “big” topic. But then over the weekend I got news that was like being hit alongside the head.

Thirty-one people killed in two apartment house fires!

What happened? Time for an immediate smoke alarm update!

Two different sets of circumstances but alarms failed people in each.

In the Philadelphia fire (3-level apartment building) no alarms were heard to go off. But the building owner swears that smoke and CO alarms were located throughout the apartments and had been tested positively last fall. What’s the answer?

In the Bronx fire (19-story high rise) people ignored the smoke alarms going off “. . . because they go off all the time.” When automatic doors did not close as expected, smoke rapidly filled the building. With no exterior fire escapes, people died from smoke inhalation, not from fire itself.

This is not a complete report. People are still in the hospital; officials are still examining damage to the buildings; displaced families are still in trauma. So, we’ll probably learn more.

For us it is another reminder of the life-saving role of WORKING smoke alarms.

Our neighbors have smoke alarm problems, too.

Just like the people in the Bronx building, when their smoke alarms chirp or even go off for apparently no reason, our neighbors get tired of trying to figure out what to do. Many of our older neighbors find it difficult to “test” their alarms because they can’t reach the alarms without climbing up on a ladder. Eventually, they abandon the alarms or even tear them down and throw them out – sometimes, still chirping! 

Here’s the statistic from NPFA that keeps our testing program strong and drives this Advisory, too::

The death rate in home fires is much higher where a smoke alarm is present but does not operate than it is in home fires with no smoke alarms at all.

Let’s assume you have smoke alarms. In the right places. Now, make sure they are operating.

Test the alarms to see if their batteries are working. All smoke alarms have batteries. But different types of alarms use batteries differently.

What kind of alarm do you have? You probably can’t tell just by standing on the floor and looking up at it! You need to get up on a ladder and twist the body of the battery out of its mount. Examine the back side.

  • Some alarms are sealed so batteries can’t be removed. At the end of its battery life, the alarm needs to be discarded and replaced.
  • Other alarms operate with batteries that need to be replaced on a regular basis.
  • Still other alarms are wired to the house and use its electricity, but have batteries as back-up if the electricity goes out. You can change the battery on a wired alarm without disconnecting any of the wires. 

Replaceable batteries last about 6 months. That’s why we recommend testing and changing them twice a year when the time changes.

Testing is simple: just press the “test” button until you hear the fire alarm tone.

If a battery in your alarm starts running low, it may alert you by cheeping or chirping. This means, time to change.

What if the beeping won’t stop?

Sometimes the alarm continues to chirp or beep after you have changed the battery and done everything right. Do not allow this to drive you crazy! It simply means that the “coding” in the alarm hasn’t been cleared out. You need to RESET your alarm so you know it is working properly.

Here’s a good video showing the whole sequence. (Only 2 minutes long.)

Electric (hard-wired) Smoke Detectors with Battery Backup

  1. Go to the breaker box for your house. Shut off the circuit to your smoke detector.
  2. Remove the detector from the bracket on the ceiling and disconnect the power cable plugged to the smoke detector.
  3. Take out its battery, then press the “Test” button on the “empty” alarm and hold it down for 15 seconds. An alarm will sound for a short time, then the alarm will silence.
  4. Put the battery back into the smoke detector, reconnect the power cable and mount the smoke detector back on its bracket. Turn the breaker on. The smoke alarm will chirp one time to indicate power has been restored to the unit.

Battery-Powered Smoke Detectors

  1. Remove the battery from the smoke detector.
  2. Press the “Test” button and hold it down for 15 seconds. An alarm will sound for a short time, and then will stop.
  3. Reinstall the battery. The smoke alarm will chirp once to indicate the battery is connected.

Want more assurance? Get new alarms if you need them!

Smoke alarms have a life of 7-10 years. Don’t push your luck! If you know by now that you need new smoke alarms, don’t hesitate. If you want hard-wired alarms, you may need expert electrical help to get them installed. But you can easily install battery-operated alarms yourself.

Check out the sample products below and head to Amazon to compare. Prices for alarms continue to come down: the alarms below start at less than $10, and even the newest, combo smoke and CO alarms start at prices as low as $20. (Buying a multi-pack can reduce the cost of the individual item considerably.) Kidde and First Alert are two of the most popular brands.

Battery-operated Sealed

Kidde – 21026051 Smoke Detector Alarm | Battery Operated | Model i9050

Hard Wired with Battery Back-up

First Alert BRK9120b6CP Hardwired Smoke Detector with Backup Battery

Important for travel safety — a portable alarm you can carry with you.

What if you arrive at a hotel room, or even a friend’s basement guest room, and note that there is no smoke alarm!? Consider getting a smaller, more compact and battery-operated alarm that you can set up for more peaceful sleep. And then, pack it up and take it away with you. Below is an example.

NOTICE: Not all the portable brands of smoke alarms are UL listed so some states (like California) won’t allow them. Be sure the model you’re looking at will meet your state’s requirements. (The Amazon sales page will tell you.)

SITERWELL Smoke Detector , Photoelectric Technology Smoke Alarm with 10 Year Life Time, Small Fire Alarm with Built-in Battery and Test&Silence Button for House, UL Listed, GS522C-A, 4 Packs

This Advisory is one of the important ones. Please make sure you “know your alarms” and are confident they are working properly. We have had four house fires in our neighborhood in the past 10 years. Every house burned to the ground, but no one was injured thanks to smoke alarms!

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S. Several years ago I wrote about what happened when I tried to test my smoke alarms for the first time. That Advisory also distinguishes between photoelectric and ionization technology. You may enjoy that story . . .!

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