Palo Alto may push faster-response home fire alarms

'Photoelectric' alarms are dramatically faster in 'smolder fires,' giving a life-saving edge

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

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

Cost: Free

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

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Gordon Simpkinson
a resident of another community
on Oct 1, 2010 at 8:04 am

Please take a moment to review the safety of your home. Look inside your smoke detector, there should be a date there or on the back cover if it was made in the last ten years. Any alarm over ten years old is very likely to malfunction in a fire.

If the alarm is an ionization alarm, I urge you to replace it with photoelectric no matter how old it is, to make sure that you have the best chance of survival if a smoldering fire occurs. You get the best protection if you have a smoke alarm in every bedroom, and one on each floor of the house.

If you have an alarm that annoys you because it goes of when you cook or take a shower, this is almost certainly an ionization alarm, and you'll be far safer and less annoyed with photoelectric.

If you like gadgets like I do, there are now battery operated photoelectric smoke alarms that communicate wirelessly, to give you the earliest possible warning. They are available with built-in carbon monoxide detection as well. They don't interfere with my wireless phones or wi-fi network, and I can test them all by pushing the button on just one of them.

We have much more information, plus a brochure that you can take with you to the store, posted on our web site at Web Link

I hope we'll see you at one of our events on Oct. 3rd or the 9th!

Gordon Simpkinson
Acting Fire Marshal
Palo Alto Fire Department

Please contact us at if you have questions or concerns.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 1, 2010 at 9:11 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Residential sprinklers are now affordable. Mention them.

Like this comment
Posted by Adrian Butler
a resident of another community
on Oct 1, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Attention: All Palo Alto Citizens
Congratulations to your Acting Fire Marshal Gordon Simpkinson, the Palo Alto Fire Department and the media for getting the truth about ionization smoke alarms to the community. It is tragic that some US Government Departments still claim these "deadly" smoke alarms are safe. Here in Australia Fire Departments have acknowledged they have dangerous defects and have not given them out for four years:
The stand Palo Alto and Albany have taken requires guts and integrity. The actions by these brave Fire Departments will eventually save thousands of lives.
Watch 'Smoke Alarm Recall' and discover just how defective ionization smoke alarms really are:
Thank you.
Adrian Butler
The World Fire Safety Foundation
Queensland, Australia

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Rogers
a resident of another community
on Oct 2, 2010 at 10:19 am

This is a great step forward, but an even bigger step would be to increase the awareness and use of monitored smoke sensors. They can usually be added to your home alarm system for a small investment, and should not add to the monthly fee. If you are way, or more important, if you are overcome by smoke, a monitored system can make the difference. You want the authorities on the way as soon as possible. also if you have pets...

Here is a blog entry that people may find very helpful, about monitored smoke detection.

Web Link

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

If you do nothing else, do These Three Things
By Sherry Listgarten | 36 comments | 2,071 views

Lentil Brownies
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 500 views

Finding Balance
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 298 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.