Why we install smoke alarms and how you can help

By Gordon Williams

This spring, the second annual Red Cross Sound-the-Alarm campaign will lead to 100,000 new smoke alarms being installed in 100 at-risk communities throughout all 50 states. Here in the Northwest Region, three events on April 27, May 4 and May 11 will focus installation efforts on neighborhoods in Everett, Seattle and Tacoma, mobilizing hundreds of volunteers with the goal of reducing home fire deaths and injuries.

How important are smoke alarms in home fire safety?  The answer can be found in a study called “Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fire Safety,” published recently by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a non-profit organization, launched in 1896, that works to reduce death, injury and financial loss due to fires.

First off, the number of home fires is deeply troubling — more than 350,000 a year, according to NFPA statistics, or one home fire every 88 seconds. Further, those home fires kill more than 2,500 people a year, and injure nearly 12,000 more.

The Red Cross launched its Home Fire Campaign in 2014, aiming to cut home fire deaths by 25% by putting smoke alarms in homes than did not have them or did not have a working alarm. Since 2014, the Red Cross has installed 1.6 million alarms in nearly 700,000 American homes. Red Cross volunteers do the installation, and there is no charge for the alarm or the installation.

Fires spread quickly, and smoke spreads even more quickly. An alarm, sounded in the first stages of a fire, can give residents time to escape the home while escape is still possible. In fact, by Installing all those alarms, the Red Cross estimates it has saved 522 lives — people who might have died in home fires but were saved by the early warning smoke alarms provide.

The NFPA report amply confirms the critical importance of alarms in home fire safety. Among its findings:

  • Three of every five home fire deaths in recent years were in homes that had no smoke alarm or had a smoke alarm that wasn’t working.
  • The risk of dying in a home fire is 54% lower in a home with a working smoke alarm.
  • While smoke alarms are in wide use in the U.S., an estimated 5 million homes do not have an alarm.
  • There usually were special factors at work in homes where someone died even though there was a working smoke alarm. The victim may have been near the point of ignition, been responsible for the ignition, attempted to fight the fire, was disabled or elderly.
  • The most common reason that a smoke alarm, while present, failed to sound is dead batteries. That is why you are advised to change smoke alarm batteries twice a year, each time you change your clock at the start or end of daylight savings time. 

Volunteers are needed to scout out homes in need of smoke alarms, and to help install them. In Everett on April 27, Tacoma on May 4 and Seattle on May 11.  The link to register is: https://www.redcross.org/sound-the-alarm.html

If you live outside of those three cities, check with your local Red Cross chapter or your local fire service to see if your community has a smoke alarm initiative planned for some other time. Or purchase and install your own smoke alarm. They are widely available for well under $50.

Getasmokealarm.org is the website you can use in the Northwest Region to request an install in your home.

There is plenty of advice available from the NFPA if you do install alarms on your own, here are some of the tips:

  • Install smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside of each separate sleeping area and on every level of the home, including the basement. Alarms should be on the ceiling or high on the wall.
  • Keep alarms out of the kitchen to avoid false alarms. Keep alarms at least 10 feet away from the stove.
  • Test each alarm once a month by pressing the test button. Replace batteries twice a year; better still, buy smoke alarms with 10-year lithium batteries. Replace all smoke alarms when they are 10 years old.

Finally, don’t count on smoke alarms alone to keep you safe in a home fire. There are lots more life-saving tips from the National Fire Protection Association. For instance, keep all doors closed at night, especially bedroom doors. A closed door can save your life, says the NFPA, by slowing the spread of smoke, heat and fire.

Additional safety tips and information is available at: RedCross.org

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