A working smoke alarm could mean the difference between life and death

Posted at 3:44 PM, Jul 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-17 18:34:54-04

Fires have claimed the lives of five people in just 10 days in Cleveland and, according to fire officials, some of those deaths could have been easily prevented.

According to the Red Cross, there were no operational smoke detectors in those homes. 

INVESTIGATION: Smoke alarms found in 90 percent of U.S. homes often slow to go off

So what can you do to keep your family safe?

First of all, make sure your home has smoke detectors. The Northeast Ohio Red Cross gives away smoke alarms for free. All you have to do is call 216-361-5535. 

On Monday, the American Red Cross staff went around town installing fire alarms for those who need it. The Red Cross installs and provides the fire alarms and new batteries, all free of charge.

John Gareis with the Red Cross says he has seen a lot of fires.

“It's surprising how many people don't have working smoke alarms or don't think about it until it's obviously too late, like we've seen lately,” said Gareis, “A lot of people with hardwired alarms think that they're good to go. They have power going to the alarm, but the sensors are dead, so it's not sensing anything.”

The Regional Officer of Disaster Services Timothy O'Toole said about seven people die every day from house fires in the U.S.

“That exceeds all the other disasters combined,” said O’Toole.

He said while the number of fire deaths have gone down over the years, there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to fire awareness. According to O’Toole, the most common cause of overall house fires is cooking.

“However, the common cause, related to fatal fires can be slower, smoldering fires that occur at night,” said O’Toole.

Homeowner Arlene Jordan still remembers her apartment building catching fire when she was just 18. She survived, but the smoke is still vivid in her memories.

“Just saw a lot of smoke, but it was still scary so after that I’m just really aware of fires,” said Jordan.

Since then, she calls the Red Cross every year to update her alarms. To prevent more deaths, the Red Cross staff just installed alarms in about 70 homes in Brooklyn last Friday.

“That neighborhood is a lot safer than it was,” said Gareis.


  • Choose smoke alarms that have the label of a recognized testing laboratory.
  • Install smoke alarms inside each bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home, including the basement.
  • On levels without bedrooms, install alarms in the living room (or den or family room) or near the stairway to the upper level, or in both locations.
  • Smoke alarms installed in the basement should be installed on the ceiling at the bottom of the stairs leading to the next level.
  • Smoke alarms should be installed at least 10 feet (3 meters) from a cooking appliance to minimize false alarms when cooking.
  • Mount smoke alarms high on walls or ceilings (remember, smoke rises). Wall-mounted alarms should be installed not more than 12 inches away from the ceiling (to the top of the alarm).
  • If you have ceilings that are pitched, install the alarm within 3 feet of the peak but not within the apex of the peak (four inches down from the peak). 
  • Don't install smoke alarms near windows, doors, or ducts where drafts might interfere with their operation.
  • Never paint smoke alarms. Paint, stickers, or other decorations could keep the alarms from working.
  • For the best protection, interconnect all smoke alarms. When one smoke alarm sounds they all sound. Interconnection can be done using hard-wiring or wireless technology.
  • When interconnected smoke alarms are installed, it is important that all of the alarms are from the same manufacturer. If the alarms are not compatible, they may not sound.
  • There are two types of smoke alarms – ionization and photoelectric. An ionization smoke alarm is generally more responsive to flaming fires, and a photoelectric smoke alarm is generally more responsive to smoldering fires. For the best protection, both types of alarms or combination ionization-photoelectric alarms, also known as dual sensor smoke alarms, are recommended.
  • Keep manufacturer’s instructions for reference.

*From the National Fire Protection Association

Facts and figures

  • In 2009-2013, smoke alarms sounded in more than half (53%) of the home fires reported to U.S. fire departments.
  • Three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms (38%) or no working smoke alarms (21%).
  • No smoke alarms were present in almost two out of every five (38%) home fire deaths. 
  • The death rate per 100 reported home fires was more than twice as high in homes that did not have any working smoke alarms compared to the rate in homes with working smoke alarms (1.18 deaths vs. 0.53 deaths per 100 fires).
  • In fires in which the smoke alarms were present but did not operate, almost half (46%) of the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries.
  • Dead batteries caused one-quarter (24%) of the smoke alarm failures.

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