Results of smoke alarm test have some experts sounding an alarm, but not Ohio Fire Marshal

Fire Marshal report upsets some firefighters

EUCLID, Ohio - Smoke alarms save lives, but some argue they're not saving enough people.

A 5 On Your Side Consumer investigation found some alarms sound nine times faster than others. Which one do you have in your home?

911 calls for help are going out, but people are not making it out alive. In November, two people died in a Shaker Heights fire. In December, five people died in Seneca County. In January, two college students died in Cincinnati. While the cases are still under investigation, every fire death reopens an old wound for Doug Turnbull.

"I have a picture of her next to my coffeepot in the morning. And when I make a cup of coffee everyday, I have a little chat with her," Turnbull said.

Turnbull's daughter, Julie, had a bright future. She had a job after college, but her dreams ended in a flash a month before her 2005 college graduation from Miami University.

"Most people told me it was the roar of the fire that woke them up," Turnbull said. "If the detectors did go off, they went off too late."

At Julie's funeral, Dean Dennis offered his support. His daughter died in a house fire two years earlier at Ohio State University.

United in grief, the dads began researching the fires. What they found prompted them to sound an alarm.

"Our kids would probably be alive today had there been photoelectric detectors in the houses," Turnbull said.

Smoke detectors put to the test

There are two main types of smoke detector technology. Photoelectric alarms detect smoldering fires faster, and on some smoke detector packaging it says photoelectric alarms lead to less false alarms.

The alarm in most homes uses ionization technology, which more quickly detects fast flaming fires. They also lead to false alarms like when you burn toast. All those false cooking alarms prompt some people to disable the alarms, just like in the fire that killed Dennis' daughter.

"Every alarm in that home was ionization. Most of them, they think, were disabled," Dennis said. "I believe she would have at least had a chance. She had zero chance with ionization alarms in that fire."

To reduce the number of disabled alarms and false alarms, Dennis and Turnbull are supporters of photoelectric technology. They travel the country sharing their story and created the group, Fathers for Fire Safety.

For maximum protection in a fire, smoke alarm manufacturers recommend both types of alarms or a dual alarm. That's when both technologies are in the same alarm. The recommendation is on the packaging.

We bought two brands of each alarm, numbered them one through six, and put them to the test in a vacant home in Euclid. The Euclid Fire Department uses the home for training exercises.

The Northeastern Ohio Fire Prevention Association hung the detectors in the hallway right near the home's original smoke alarm. Ohio Fire Code tells homeowners to put an alarm on each level of your home, including your basement. You also need an alarm in every bedroom and in the hallway outside those rooms.

Once our detectors were hung in the hallway near the living room on the first level, the two fire marshals inside started a smoldering fire.

"What we are going to simulate today is that cigarette butt dropping into the crack in the sofa," said John Desmarteau, President of the Northeastern Ohio Fire Prevention Association.

Five unmanned cameras inside the home caught every angle of the test.

Four minutes and 31 seconds into our test, a smoke alarm went off. It was a photoelectric alarm. Fifty-one seconds later, the second photoelectric brand sounded.

The dual alarms, which use both ionization and photoelectric technology, sounded more than six minutes after we saw smoke.

Six minutes in, only two types of alarms went off. Meaning, the kind of smoke alarm that's in 90 percent of homes hadn't gone off yet. As the minutes passed, the fire marshals inside the home reached for their oxygen masks.

"If you breathed that in you would have been in trouble," said Michael Kocab, Willoughby Fire Marshal.

Finally, one ionization alarm and then the other.

In our test, the first ionization detector sounded 9 minutes and 12 seconds after the photoelectric alarm.

"It's too long. Way too long," said Jim Alunni, Chagrin Falls Fire Marshal.

In testing done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a non-regulatory federal agency, photoelectric detectors sensed smoldering fires on average 30 minutes faster than ionization detectors. The same study showed ionization detectors respond, on average, 50 seconds faster than photoelectric detectors in fast flaming fires.

NIST said it's difficult to determine if that time difference is significant when it comes to safety since smoldering fires grow more slowly than a flaming fire. The agency does not make recommendations, but provides its data for others to make their own recommendation.

Fire marshal weighs in on the issue

Ohio's Fire Marshal Larry Flowers asked a task force to look into the different technologies and fire safety in general. The group released its report this summer and found, "There are no statistical differences in the performance of the two existing types of smoke alarms initially discussed, i.e. ionization or photoelectric. Both meet current performance standards."

We showed our video to the fire marshal.

"Every fire is different. The fire is different that we are not comfortable with saying one is better than another," Flowers said.

The State Fire Marshal recommends any alarm, even though the two leading manufacturers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and 4 leading fire safety groups ( National Association of State Fire Marshals, National Fire Protection Association, U.S. Fire Administration, and International Association of Fire Chiefs) say you need both alarms for maximum protection.

We asked Flowers why his position is different than the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

"I think they've looked at what data they have and made the decision, and I respect them for that. I am a member of that organization. I don't think we are unique in Ohio," Flowers said.

If you can't afford the maximum protection, manufacturer First Alert said, "In that event, either technology provides adequate time to escape in most fires."

A message Flowers supports, given what's happening in Ohio.

"If we didn't have the scenario where we are having such a large number of fatalities without the smoke detectors maybe we could turn our attention toward one technology or another," Flowers said. "About 90 percent of the fire fatalities we have had, have not had a working smoke detector. They sometimes had the detector, but the battery was missing or the battery in it was sitting on a shelf rather than installed properly. Our message always was and continues to be -- have a working smoke detector."

We crunched the same data, obtained by the State Fire Marshal's Office, and found it could not be determined if the detectors were working in the majority of last year's fatal fires. The statistics given to 5 On Your Side by the marshal's office show 50 of the fires had an "undetermined" status. That means it could not be determined if the detectors were working.

The fire marshal's spokeswoman said reports from the scene from fire officials, neighbors and survivors show those detectors were not working in those undetermined cases. Since the state could not submit those reports as evidence in a court of law, it must label those cases as undetermined for federal statistics.

While the State Fire Marshal recommends any working alarm, the office has handed out dual alarms, which have both technologies. In the past few years, the Fire Marshal handed out 1,901 ionization alarms and 245 dual sensor alarms.

Communities respond

Firefighters are frustrated by the report and message from the state's top fire official.

"I think it sends a confused message to homeowners. They were already confused to start with and this just makes it worse," said Broadview Heights Assistant Fire Chief Joe Fleming. "Very disappointed. Extremely disappointed. The report basically didn't tell us anything."

As for the fathers fighting for fire safety, they're still pushing for change.

"The report just set fire safety back. It was embarrassing for the state of Ohio, I thought," Turnbull said. "I hope our legislators get involved in this and just take it out of the fire marshal's hands. There are too many lives at stake for this to keep dragging on."

While many groups push for both alarms because they are good at detecting different types of fires, some groups only support photoelectric technology, including the International Association of Firefighters.

Five towns in northeast Ohio also took that position and passed legislation requiring photoelectric detectors.

View Smoke Detector Map #2 in a full screen map

Several states have also taken this position.

You can find out what type of alarm you have, by looking at the labeling on the front and back.

If you see the word "radiation" on the back of the alarm, you likely have an ionization detector. Some labels may also have an "I."

If you see a "P" you have a photoelectric detector.

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