Smoke Alarm Safety

By: Erin Tate
By: Erin Tate

"We like to say smoke detectors are the cheapest form of life insurance you can buy," Harrisonburg Fire Chief Larry Shifflett has been fighting fires in Harrisonburg for nearly 34 years. And in that time, he's seen it all.

Monday, he and Fire Prevention Specialist Wanda Willis are watching one family's first fire drill. Our cameras were there, too, to see what happens.

Two-year-old Carson Murray is listening to a smoke detector for the first time. "What's that?" he asks. His father, Kevin, tells Carson what the sound means. Carson is alert, but he quickly goes back to watching television.

Fire Prevention Specialist Wanda Willis says, "As soon as it went off he should just say very matter-of-factly, not anything to panic the child, okay, our smoke alarm is going off. We need to get out of the house and make sure there's not a fire."

This is the first step in training Carson. But Shifflett says many families never practice a fire escape plan.

"Even if you just had one from the initial inception of the plan, it at least gives the child something he should do should he hear that smoke detector," he says.

That plan should include:

  • Two ways out of each room
  • A safe meeting place outside the home
  • A designated person to make the call for help

    And you should practice at night when most fatal house fires happen.

    "There's a misnomer that people have that the fire is going to wake them up. The fire's not going to wake you up. The smoke and heat from the fire is going to make you continue to sleep and it's going to eventually kill you, so that's why we recommend for people to sleep with their bedroom doors closed," Shifflett says.

    He also says it's important to not place alarms in kitchens or garages, where vapors will trigger false alarms. Detectors should be cleaned and tested regularly and replaced after ten years. And a good way to remember to change batteries is to do it twice a year when you change your clocks.

    Smoke detectors cost between $5 and $40. That's big protection for a small price. Extended Web Coverage

    Smoke Detector Safety

    • Almost half of all home fires and three-fifths of fire deaths occur in homes with no detectors.

    • Your chances of dying in a home fire are cut in half if you have a working smoke detector.

    • There are more homes with smoke detectors that don't work, than homes without any detectors at all. These poorly maintained units create a false sense of security.

    • Two-thirds of fires involving a fatality happen in residential buildings between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. when the occupants are more likely to be asleep.

    • The most dangerous period is 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

    Mounting Tips

    • Wall-mounted detectors should be installed so the top is 6 to 12 inches from the ceiling.

    • Ceiling-mounted detectors should be installed at least 6 inches from any wall.

    • If a room has a pitched ceiling, mount the detector at or near the ceiling's highest point.

    • In stairways with no doors at the top or bottom, position detectors in the path smoke would follow up the stairwell.

    • Mount detectors at the bottom of closed stairways, such as those leading to a basement or mechanical room. Dead air trapped near the door at the top of a stairway could prevent smoke from reaching a detector located at the top.

    • Don't install a detector too close to windows, doors or forced air registers, where drafts could interfere with the detector's operation.


    • Batteries weaken with age and must be regularly checked and replaced, generally every 9 to 12 months.

    • Test your smoke detectors at least once a month, following the manufacturer's instructions. Both battery-operated and electric smoke detectors become less effective with age. If your detector does not respond to the recommended test procedure (usually by pressing a test button), change its batteries. If it still does not perform, replace it.

    • Clean your smoke detectors following the manufacturer's instructions. Cobwebs and dust can generally be removed using a vacuum cleaner attachment. Never paint any part of a smoke detector.

    Source: (National Fire Protection Agency Web site) contributed to this report.

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