The recent spate of house fires across the nation certainly took the shine off the holiday season. The news of such destruction assist homeowners implement changes to help prevent fires on their own property. One of the simple safety measures for all homes is to install a smoke alarm. Legislation across most of Australia requires all homeowners install at least one smoke alarm.
If a home has more than one storey, there should be a smoke alarm on each level. An ideal location is near the bedrooms for noise impact, particularly to wake sleeping occupants during the night. In early 2007, NSW Fire Brigades reported more than 70% of fire fatalities in NSW occurred in homes that either did not have smoke alarms or had smoke alarms that did not work, often because batteries were flat or had been removed.
For residential properties there are two smoke alarm technologies suited to different areas of a house: Ionisation smoke alarms detect invisible particles of combustion, including smoke from cooking and respond quickly to fast flaming fires that produce very little visible smoke, while photoelectric smoke alarms detect visible particles of combustion from fires generated by overheated electrical wiring or a carelessly discarded cigarette.
To help avoid nuisance alarms, locate ionisation smoke alarms well away from kitchens, where they will not detect everyday cooking fumes. Instead, there is need to keep a fire blanket and fire extinguisher on hand in the kitchen to tackle small fires. If a fire is caused by cooking, the user will be nearby to deal with it. Ionisation smoke alarms are suitable for dining rooms, hallways and laundries.
Statistics show that deaths caused from house fires usually occur when people are asleep1, therefore the recommended technology is a photoelectric smoke alarm in the hallway outside the bedroom, or in the bedroom if the doors shut while sleeping. Photoelectric smoke alarms react faster than ionisation alarms to a smouldering fire, giving time to make escape. Photoelectric smoke alarms are recommended for bedrooms, living areas, hallways and it is better to place one near the kitchen where it will detect a fire, but is less likely to be a nuisance each time a toast is burnt.
According to Roger Thomas, Technical Manager, Wormald , the ideal residential smoke alarm is a photoelectric model. It is effective than the commonly used ionisation alarm at detecting smoke from slow smouldering fires. Photoelectric alarms are less prone to being set off by cooking fumes. A survey conducted by Wormald in April 2006, prior to the introduction of the current smoke alarm legislation in NSW, revealed that the majority of households in NSW (82%) had at least one smoke alarm installed. However, the survey also revealed that less than half of those homes (37%) were adequately protected against the risk of fire due to lack of ongoing maintenance.
Roger Thomas also said that the important thing to remember about smoke alarms is that they will only alert the user to danger if they are working. He recommends users to change the battery once a year and test the alarm regularly by pressing the test button. Users should also regularly clean the detector by vacuuming around it to remove dust.
The minimum legal requirements also depend on the layout, size and sleeping arrangements of each home and may not be as straight-forward as simply installing one smoke alarm. For example, the regulations require homes with more than one storey to have a smoke alarm on each level and homes with bedrooms not grouped in the one area are required to install a smoke alarm in the hallway or corridor of each separate sleeping area, Roger Thomas added.
1NSW Government Department of Planning Advisory Note March 2006, ‘New smoke alarm requirements for existing buildings from 1 May 2006.