Time to ring the alarm on smoke detectors
For 13 years Adrian Butler has been sounding the alarm on ionisation smoke alarms– the predominant alarm in households – but it seems the people who have the power to make the changes that could save thousands of lives are having trouble hearing the message.
The Wooloweyah man, chair and co-founder of The World Fire Safety Foundation, needs the help of like-minded people to put pressure on the legislators, our politicians.
Member for Clarence Chris Gulaptis has taken up the cause – he made a speech in the NSW Parliament on June 20, with the aim of initiating a parliamentary inquiry into the issue.
On an official basis, the CSIRO explains the difference between the two types of detectors: “Photoelectric alarms detect smoke from cooler, smouldering fires quicker than ionisation alarms, where as ionisation alarms detect smoke from hotter, flaming fires quicker than photoelectric alarms.”
However, according to Mr Butler and countless experts and fire organisations around the world, ionisation alarms are good at detecting flaming fires but inadequate when it comes to reacting to smouldering fires – the type of fire that most often results in house fire deaths.
“The fire might have been smouldering for an hour, then bang it erupts into flames and the fire alarm goes off – but then there’s not enough time to get out,” Mr Butler said.
In his speech to parliament, Mr Gulaptis posed a question: “In 2004 the smoke alarm standard affecting [sleeping areas and paths of egress in] commercial buildings was amended to mandate the installation of photoelectric smoke detectors. That begs an important question: Are ionisation smoke alarms defective?”
He also pointed out that, “In August 2008 the International Association of Fire Fighters said that photoelectric smoke alarms ‘will drastically reduce the loss of life among citizens and fire fighters’. “The Northern Territory enacted Australia’s first residential photoelectric legislation.
“Since November 2011 photoelectric smoke alarms must be installed in all new Northern Territory homes.”
Curiously, the entity that determines the Australian standards for smoke alarms, Standards Australia’s FP-002 Fire Detection, Warning, Control and Intercom Systems committee, was unsuccessful in having its recommended changes “to mandate the installation of photoelectric smoke alarms”.
Speaking as one of 18 members of the committee, but not as a representative of the committee, David Isaac told the Review: “We are all independent experts in our own particular fields, and we all agreed that we needed to legislate photoelectric smoke alarms.
“It all started in 2006 when … information given to us indicated that there were serious limitations with ionisation smoke alarms’ ability to detect smouldering fires.
“We asked the CSIRO scientist, who was a member of our committee: In the Australian Standards smoke alarm test, what was the level of smoke that the ionisation alarms activated in the CSIRO test room?
“The numbers he gave us were between 51 and 62 per cent obscuration of vision per [lineal] metre. “When we found out that the level is so high, we asked how these were allowed to pass the standard at such a high level.
“Then we realised there was a table in AS3786 [the smoke alarm standard] that required photo electric alarms to pass a low obscuration level, but allowed ionisation alarms to have a different pass criterion.”
Mr Isaac explained that the ionisation alarm detects submicron particulates, which can’t be seen by the human eye, citing the operation of a toaster as an example.
“What’s coming out of the toaster are millions of submicron particles that are burning off the bread and rising to the ceiling … and, as we all know, the alarm sometimes goes off.
“A photoelectric alarm wouldn’t go off under those circumstances.
“So the average person thinks ionisation alarms are super sensitive and therefore they are safe. The problem is they won’t detect visible
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