Palo Alto could become the second city in the United States to require faster, safer "photoelectric" fire alarms in homes sold, rented or renovated. Palo Alto Acting Fire Marshal Gordon Simpkinson said he may recommend such a polity because of a dramatic difference in response time.
The alarms would replace the slower, less reliable "ionization" type alarms used universally today. Residents also would be encouraged to buy the newer alarms, he said.
In July, Albany, Calif., became the first U.S. city to require photoelectric smoke alarms in all homes sold, rented or renovated. Vermont instituted a similar requirement statewide in 2009.
Now Gordon Simpkinson, Palo Alto's acting fire marshall, says he may propose that Palo Alto adopt a similar requirement, replacing the older ionization alarms in common use today.
Photoelectric alarms emit a beam of light that activates the alarm when disturbed. Older ionization alarms have an electric current that, when disturbed, sounds the alarm. Ionization alarms contain a tiny amount of radioactive material and cost less than photoelectric.
They also, however, take longer than photoelectric alarms to detect "smolder fires" because of how they detect smoke particles.
"There are about 300 deaths in the U.S. each year because an ionization fire alarm takes too long to sound," Simpkinson said.
But their tendency for false or "nuisance" alarms (from cooking fumes) is an even greater danger because about 22 percent of Americans will disable their alarms.
"That's perhaps another 1,000 deaths annually because people have taken the batteries out of alarms," Simpkinson said.
His push to encourage residents to buy photoelectric alarms comes at the start of National Fire Prevention Week, which kicks off Sunday, the 139th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. In observation of the week, Palo Alto firefighters will be promoting alarm information at several locations in the city.
His push also is aligned with a national effort to promote photoelectric alarms, a campaign rooted in tragedy.
Leaders Dean Dennis and Doug Turnbull both lost their college-age daughters to fires in off-campus housing at Ohio and Miami universities, respectively. Andrea Dennis, was killed in an off-campus housing fire near Ohio University April 13, 2003, and Julie Turnbull was killed in off-campus housing near Miami University April 10, 2005.
Dennis and Turnbull have spent years researching fire-alarm safety and effectiveness.
"I'd like to think that Andrea and Julie didn't die in vain," Dennis said Sept. 22 as he presented their research showing the superiority of photoelectric alarms at the California Fire Chiefs annual conference.
When the National Institute of Standards and Technology tested the alarms in smoldering fires, they found significant time differences, Dennis said. One scenario included a cigarette smoldering on a first-floor sofa of a home.
"By the time the photoelectric alarm sounded people on the second floor of the home would have had 54 minutes to exit safely. They would have had only 16 seconds to exit the house after the ionization alarm sounded," Dennis said.
Simpkinson said he hopes that if the campaign for requiring photoelectric alarms starts in Palo Alto that, in combination with Albany, the issue will get noticed at the state level.
"I'd much rather see a standardized approach statewide," Simpkinson said.
Albany Fire Chief McGinn has begun door-to-door visits in his city, informing each resident of the need to change their alarms.
"We're starting this week," McGinn said Sunday (Sept. 26). "It should take three weeks to blanket the whole city."
Information about fire alarms is available at www.cityofpaloalto.org/fire.
National Fire Prevention Week
What: The Palo Alto Fire Department will hand out photoelectric-alarm informational flyers, host fire-safety activities and open their fire trucks for photos
When: Oct. 3 from 10 a.m. to noon
Where: California Avenue Farmers Market (starts at 9 a.m.), Town & Country Village and Charleston Shopping Center
When: Oct. 9 from 10 a.m. to noon
Where: Lytton Plaza, Midtown Plaza Shopping Center and Midtown Safeway