FIRE SMART: Find the smoke alarm best for you

Working smoke alarms do save lives but only when they meet your specific needs

Simply put, smoke alarms save lives. The fire service has been echoing this mantra for years and I must admit during my tenure as a fire investigator, it has proven to be true time and time again.

It makes me wonder why getting people to keep a working smoke alarm in their home continues to be such a huge challenge.

With that in mind, I just found out that this challenge is possibly even bigger than I first thought as a result of recently having a very frustrated gentleman come and visit me at the fire hall.

He asked me whether or not I had heard of a smoke alarm that had a lower frequency sound because he was unable to hear the high pitched sound of the regular ones. I must admit I was stumped for an answer and really believed his situation to be a relatively unique one. However, when I started to research the problem, I was astonished to find out how significant it was and how many people were actually affected by it.

Traditionally, smoke alarms produce a high pitched (3,100Hz) sound that is meant to alert everyone in it vicinity as to the presence of a fire. Unfortunately, most people who suffer from hearing loss cannot hear the higher frequencies and are in fact unable to hear the very sound that is meant to save their lives.

As well, as we age, our ability to hear high pitched sounds decreases so with an aging population this problem is becoming increasingly bigger each day and significantly impacts the risk of being injured or killed by a fire for our seniors. Surprisingly enough, recent research has even shown us that children, heavy sleepers and people using medication and or alcohol may not hear the high pitched sound of today’s smoke alarms.

Fortunately, I have also found that there is good news on the horizon. Presently recommendations are being made for code changes regarding the sound smoke alarms will be required to make in the future while recent research also has manufactures starting to produce alarms that emit an easily heard, low pitch, temporal pattern signal.

Manufactures are also starting to utilize loud voice recordings in alarms exclaiming, “Fire, hurry,” and in both of these cases, the new alarms have been found to be more effective for waking people up than a regular smoke alarm. For more extreme hearing problems, smoke alarm alert devices called accessories are now available and produce a loud mixed low-pitch sound which is activated by a regular smoke alarm. The equipment is usually installed next to the bed and can include a pillow or bed shaker attachment.

There is unquestionably no argument as to the importance of having working smoke alarms in your home. They provide a small window of time for escape and are the simplest and most cost efficient means we can have for providing ourselves with a first line of defense against fire. Of course, this can only happen if the smoke alarm you install in your home is actually able to notify you of the danger. It has never been an install it and forget it situation with smoke alarms and there has been a constant effort emphasizing the importance of making sure smoke alarms are maintained and working properly.

However, lately it has also become painfully clear that not everyone’s needs can be addressed by conventional smoke alarms. People now have to be aware that although working smoke alarms are essential for every home, not every home has the same needs and it is important to research all the available products to find the one that is best suited for yours.

All this being said, Vernon Fire Rescue Services would like to remind you that working smoke alarms do save lives but only when they work for you! Be fire smart! In order to help you and your family escape a fire, please take the time to ensure that your smoke alarm will in fact, do the job it is supposed to do when it is needed.

Lawrie Skolrood is deputy fire chief with Vernon Fire Rescue Services.