Palo Alto became the second city in California to strengthen its requirements for smoke alarms after the City Council agreed to change the city's fire code Monday night.
The council decided to follow in the footsteps of Massachusetts and require builders, landlords and home renovators in install photoelectric alarms -- which become activated when the lights they emit get disturbed -- in kitchens.
The council made the change upon suggestion of Fire Marshall Gordon Simpkinson, who lauded photoelectric alarms as a safer and more effective alternative to the commonly used ionization alarms, which rely on electric currents.
Simpkinson said ionization alarms take longer than photoelectric alarms to become activated during a smoldering fire, in some cases by more than 15 minutes. Furthermore, roughly 20 percent of ionization alarms get disabled by residents because of "nuisance activation," most notably from cooking fumes.
The council considered requiring photoelectric alarms in all new buildings, but reconsidered after learning that ionization alarms could be more effective during flash fires.
Mayor Pat Burt recommended requiring builders, landlords and homeowners making major renovation to install either dual-sensor alarms or both types of alarms at areas outside the kitchen. In the kitchen area, where nuisance activation is common, photoelectric alarms will now be required.
The council voted unanimously to adopt Burt's proposal.
Simpkinson and Albany (California) Fire Chief Mark McGinn both argued Monday that photoelectric alarms are far safer than the ionization type. McGinn said his city has successfully switched over to the photoelectric alarms and encouraged the Palo Alto council to do so as well.
"This ordinance is probably the most important life safety issue that you will face and I know that I will face in my lifetime," McGinn said. "It's very important and I encourage you to pass it."
Simpkinson cited data from the National Fire Protection Association in his report, suggesting that more than 1,000 deaths nationally per year could be prevented by switching from ionization to photoelectric alarms.
The proposed change has come under fire, however, from the California Fire Chiefs Association, which sent a letter to the Palo Alto council last week asking the city to slow down.
Gene Gantt, who represented the association at Monday's meeting, said the state Fire Marshal's office has formed a task force to consider the relative merits of the two types of smoke alarm systems. Former Palo Alto Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva is expected to chair that task force, Gantt said.
Gantt, who is taking part on the task force, asked the council to wait until the task force completes its work before it changes the fire code.
"We have a proven technology and what Palo Alto is doing is making that technology not available to the citizens," Gantt said, referring to ionization alarms.
In his letter, association President Lorin Neyer wrote that the issue of smoke alarms is now being examined nationally and that the information isn't currently available to support a change in the fire code. He asked the council for help in "minimizing possible confusion for the customers in our State."
But the council agreed that it wouldn't hurt to strengthen the city's fire code. The Fire Department revisits the fire code every three years, Simpkinson said, and the city could always tweak it next time around if the new requirement causes difficulties.
"Our feeling is that this is too important an issue to make no decision at all," Simpkinson said. "This process introduces a reasonable standard for the citizens of Palo Alto."
The new requirements would apply to new buildings, rental housing, homes undergoing ownership changes and homes where more than $1,000 in construction is occurring and where a building permit is required. It would not apply to existing owner-occupied homes that don't meet these conditions.
Simpkinson said the two types of smoke alarms cost roughly the same (about $13). A dual-sensor alarm costs about $25. He recommended making photoelectric alarms a requirement for new buildings, as well as those undergoing renovations or ownership changes. Albany and the Vermont have similar requirements.
But the council decided to follow the Massachusetts model, which gives preference to dual-sensor alarms.
Councilman Greg Scharff initially recommended adopting Simpkinson's proposal to require photoelectric alarms, but ultimately sided with the rest of the council.
"If the State of California has different recommendations, we can change it," Scharff said. "In the meantime, we're making a significant improvement to public safety."