Only On 6: Smoke Alarm False Security

In 2010, more than 2,500 people died in fires in the United States. Two-thirds of those deaths could have possibly been prevented had a working smoke alarm been installed, that's almost 1,600 lives.
But, did you know there are different types of smoke alarms? A recent study by Texas A&M showed that the cheapest, most commonly used alarm, may take much longer to sound when seconds count. Newschannel 6 did some digging to get to the bottom of this issue. Here is what we found out.

Wichita Falls Fire Marshall David Collins said, "There's a number of different types of smoke detectors that are available to the public and one of the things we realized was how quickly some do operate as opposed to other different types."
There are indeed different types of smoke alarms. The most common and least expensive is what is called an ionization smoke detector. It, in simple terms, samples the air. It uses positive and negative charged plates and when the plates become unbalanced the alarm sounds.

The other kind of alarm is a photoelectric detector. It uses a beam of light and a mirror and when the light is obstructed the alarm sounds.

The third kind is known as a dual alarm. It uses both kinds of sensors, and is the most expensive of the three types. The dual alarm is what the U.S. Fire Administration, which is a department of FEMA recommends you use.

The Texas A&M study that was done showed that in a smoldering fire the ionized type smoke alarm was much slower in sounding than the photoelectric and the dual alarm. So we partnered with the Wichita Falls Fire Department. We put the three different type alarms, made by the same company, to the test.

With firefighters standing by, we first ran a smoldering fire test with a heat source and a piece of wood. It mimics the conditions of the slow smoldering fire. The first time we ran the test, the dual alarm sounded in just eleven seconds. The photoelectric alarm went off at forty seconds. Then the ionized alarm was almost a full minute after that. It sounded at one minute thirty seven seconds. We cleared the room and did the test two more times.  We added more smoke in test two and three. The ionized alarm sounded much quicker on those two and there was a much shorter interval between all three going off. Our first test backed up what the Texas A&M study found. We had a fifty seven second difference in the photo and dual alarm going off and the ionized alarm sounding.

We then tested all three on a large flaming fire like you might see in a kitchen. In our first test the ionized alarm sounded at one minute and twenty seven seconds. The dual alarm went off just four seconds later and the photoelectric alarm sounded eighteen seconds after that. In our second and third large fire test all three went off with in nine seconds of each other. All were consistent in that type of fire.

Wichita Falls Fire Marshall David Collins tested with us. He emphasized that while there are different reaction times when it comes to smoke detectors, a working one inside your home is better than not having one at all.

"The most important issue is that we all have working smoke detectors in the homes if it's a multi-level home have one on each level," said Collins. "Every bedroom needs one every hallway that's adjacent to those bedrooms. The batteries need to be checked on a regular basis if they are battery operated."

The types of smoke alarms we used in the test all have different costs. The ionized one which was slower by almost more than a minute in our first test costs $7.99. The photoelectric one we used sells for $15.97. The dual alarm which again is what is recommended cost us $22.97. There are different brands that we found that vary in price as well. We used First Alert which is one of the top two national brands. Kiddie is another brand that is sold locally and we found with that brand the photoelectric was the least expensive. Again, any smoke alarm is better than none, but remember there are choices when it comes to which is the best fit for your own level of feeling safe.