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Check Your Fire Defenses

• Smoke and carbon dioxide alarm batteries
• Alarm purchase dates • Family fire escape plan

By now you’ve heard safety officials’ standard advice: Change the batteries on your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors when you change your clocks for daylight savings time and standard time.

It’s easy advice to follow, yet every year in the U.S., about 3,000 people die in residential fires, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Most victims die from inhalation of smoke and toxic gases, not as a result of burns.

Changing your alarm batteries also offers an opportunity to revisit fire safety plans. Well-maintained smoke alarms can give your family extra time to escape a home fire. A well-rehearsed plan will help everyone know what to do at a time when it’s easy to panic.

Battery and Alarm Replacement

Develop and Practice
An Escape Plan

In addition to smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and USFA offer the following advice about fire escape planning.

  1. Every family should develop a home fire escape plan and practice it at least twice a year with the entire household.
  2. Practice the fire escape plan with your children, babysitter and older family members.
  3. During practice, it is important to be aware of and remove obstacles that may prevent a quick and safe evacuation, such as blocked exits or jammed or barred windows.
  4. Children may not awaken from the sound of a smoke alarm. Parents should hold a fire drill during the night so they can assess their children’s ability to awaken and respond appropriately.
  5. If children, or any other family member, cannot hear the smoke alarm, the escape plan should be adjusted accordingly to help get all family members out safely.
  6. Make sure your whole family knows when and how to call emergency telephone numbers.
  7. Obtain and learn how to use a fire extinguisher.

Additional Info

• For more about home fire drills, visit www.homesafetycouncil.org

• Liberty Mutual's Be Fire Smart site shows families how to eliminate fire hazards and create a fire escape plan. It also features a children’s section with interactive games, a downloadable coloring book and a story that teaches kids to never hide from a firefighter during a fire.

• At the National Fire Prevension Association's webiste, you'll find family fire safety practices and activities  in conjunction with NationAl Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 9-15, 2011.

Some smoke alarms are battery-powered, while others are connected directly to the home’s electrical system and use batteries as backup in case of a power failure. For both types of alarms, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) recommends replacing the batteries yearly and replacing the whole unit every 8-10 years.

Exception: Some alarms use a lithium battery, which should be good for the life of the unit.

Remember: You’ll need a qualified electrician to install and replace alarms that are hard-wired to your home’s electrical system. You should follow your alarm manufacturer’s recommendations in choosing replacement batteries.

Types of Alarms

There are two basic types of smoke alarms: ionization alarms and photoelectric alarms. There are also combination alarms that combine ionization and photoelectric detectors in one unit. These are called dual sensor smoke alarms.

“Buying a dual sensor detector or single sensor detector is all preference. Both types are effective. Ionization detectors respond more quickly to flaming fires and are less expensive.

Photoelectric detectors respond more quickly to smoldering “smoky” fires and are more expensive,” says Capt. Michael Harris, public information officer for the Wilmington, DE Fire Department.

Because the ionization and photoelectric alarms are most sensitive to different types of fires, the USFA recommends installing both types or choosing dual sensor smoke alarms. If you are unsure what type of alarm is in your home, Capt. Harris says, “You must remove the detector and look on the back or inside and it will tell you the type.”

Locations: Smoke alarms should be installed on every level of your home, including the basement. For extra safety, install smoke alarms both inside and outside sleeping areas, says the USFA.

Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Carbon monoxide (CO) detectors use sensors to detect the level of carbon monoxide in the air. CO is a colorless, odorless gasthat is deadly in high concentration. In homes, CO can form from space or water heaters, blocked chimneys, an open flame or a car running inside the garage.

Just like smoke alarms, CO detector batteries need to be replaced yearly. These units lose sensitivity after five years, so they need to be replaced more frequently than smoke alarms. You can find the manufacture date on the back of the alarm.

Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed on every level of your home. However, don’t install detectors in garages, where car exhausts can trigger false alarms, or near doors and windows where fresh air can cause false low readings.

New standard: Older CO detectors often sounded false alarms, so new standards were put in place in 2007. Newer alarms won’t sound unless the CO level exceeds 30 parts per million parts of air. All CO detectors should meet Underwriters Laboratories Standard 2034. Check the package to be sure.

Extra feature: It is a good idea to look for a carbon monoxide detector with a digital display. These units show CO levels in parts per million rather than just simply beeping.

So before you go to bed on Halloween, don’t forget to set your clocks back and replace the batteries in your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.

Carol Anne Pagliotti is a freelance writer and former resources editor of MetroKids.

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