Palo Alto to require 'better' smoke alarms

City revises fire code to require photoelectric alarms in kitchens

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."

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Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 9, 2010 at 5:18 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by cmr
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2010 at 7:22 am

I've had far more false alarms from the photoelectric alarms as steam sets them off. The instructions state that they should be installed away from the kitchen and bath to avoid false alarms. By requiring these systems in kitchens, they are perpetuating the problem that they are trying to avoid, that is disabling of alarms due to frequent false alarms.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 9, 2010 at 8:33 am

Is there one manufacturer of this particular type of fire alarm that we will be forced to give our business to? Just curious.

Like this comment
Posted by Blowing-Smoke
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 9, 2010 at 8:42 am

> Simpkinson and Albany (California) Fire Chief Mark McGinn both
> argued Monday that photoelectric alarms are far safer than
> ionization type.

> "This ordinance is probably the most important life safety issue
> that you will face and I know that I will face in my lifetime,"

OMG! Did someone tell these two that Prop.19 actually passed on Nov. 2nd, and they decided to "toke up" before the council meeting?

So .. Chief McGinn, how many people died every year in your town from faulty fire detectors, and how many died after the switch?

A little hard evidence about the effects of the new devices in his town might have been more effective that this mega dose of hyperbole.

And to think that Palo Alto and Albany are probably paying those to guys somewhere around $450K (or more) to sit around and come up with this kind of hooey ..

Like this comment
Posted by Mark
a resident of University South
on Nov 9, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Anonymous, photoelectric smoke alarms are fairly ubiquitous in the fire safety industry...most of the big companies like First Alert, BRK, Kidde, etc. have a photoelectric version of their smoke alarms. There certainly is healthy competition in the market, no one holds a monopoly on the technology.

Like this comment
Posted by Gordon Simpkinson
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2010 at 7:20 am

For those interested in facts, from organizations like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, National Fire Protection Association and the National Institute for Standards and Technology, please visit to see the materials reviewed by Council.

Chief McGinn distributed a written position paper from BRK, the second largest smoke alarm manufacturer (one that makes both types of alarms) stating support for photoelectric regulations. This position paper is also posted at our web site.

The requirement was not to place any smoke alarm in kitchens, but to make sure that if the Building Code specifies a smoke alarm in a location that is within 20 feet of a kitchen, wood burning stove or fireplace, that it be photoelectric only to reduce nuisance activation. Clearance from bathrooms shall be in accordance with manufacturer's instructions.

Please visit our web site and feel free to contact me with any questions at


Gordon Simpkinson
Acting Fire Marshal
Palo Alto Fire Department

Like this comment
Posted by Blowing-Smoke
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 10, 2010 at 9:48 am

Mr. Simpkinson:

Thanks for your links to facts, but I would be interested in some facts about fires, and fire causes, here in Palo Alto:

So .. would you mind telling us:

1) How many structure fires occur here PA yearly?

2) How many people die, on a yearly basis, in these fires?

3) How many of these fire fatalities can be attributed to the failure of non-optical fire detectors to activate?

4) In how many fires occur in PA, on a yearly basis, can it be shown that non-optical fire detectors failed to activate?

5) How many fires occur in PA, on a yearly basis, where there is no fire detector (of any kind) installed?

6) How many fires occur in PA, on a yearly basis, when it can be shown that the installed fire detector’s battery was “dead”?

7) Over the next five years, how many of these optical fire detectors do you estimate will be installed in PA?

Thanks for your time answering these questions.

Like this comment
Posted by Gordon Simpkinson
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Because I cannot monitor this page on an ongoing basis, I will be unable to answer questions posted here.

I have shared my contact information above and will reply to all inquiries as time allows.

Like this comment
Posted by Blowing-Smoke
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 11, 2010 at 8:03 am

> Because I cannot monitor this page on an ongoing basis,
> I will be unable to answer questions posted here.

This is a most disappointing answer. The questions posted should have been asked by the City Council .. but were not ..

It is very difficult to be respectful of City employees who are so disrespectful of the public.

Like this comment
Posted by patmarriott
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 11, 2010 at 11:10 am

Watch this video about smoke alarms:
Web Link

And read this article:
Web Link

"Virtually all residential homes with smoke alarms have the ionization type, and virtually all commercial buildings have the photoelectric types, according to several studies.

"...ionization alarms are so inferior to the photoelectric alarms that they are 'deadly.' Unlike photoelectrics, ionizations were built primarily as flame detectors, ... people need warning long before a fire gets to the flame stage so they can flee, avoid fatal smoke inhalation or even react to squelch the blaze."

Like this comment
Posted by Blowing-Smoke
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 11, 2010 at 12:12 pm

> ionization alarms are so inferior to the photoelectric
> alarms that they are 'deadly.

If this were true, one would have to begin to wonder about the certification process that allowed these devices to be placed in the public domain originally.

The following is from a yearly "Fire Loss" report released by the NFPA--

Web Link

With home fire deaths still accounting for 2,565 fire deaths or 85% of all civilian deaths, fire safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll. Five major strategies are:

First, more widespread public fire safety education is needed on how to prevent fires and how to avoid serious injury or death if fire occurs. Information on the common causes of fatal home fires should continue to be used in the design of fire safety education messages.

Second, more people must use and maintain smoke detectors and develop and practice escape plans.

Third, wider use of residential sprinklers must be aggressively pursued.

Fourth, additional ways must be sought to make home products more fire safe. The regulations requiring more child resistant lighters are a good example, as are requirements for cigarettes, with reduced ignition strength (generally called “fire-safe” cigarettes). The wider use of upholstered furniture and mattresses that are more resistant to cigarette ignitions is an example of change that has already accomplished much and will continue to do more.

Fifth, the special fire safety needs of high-risk groups, e.g., the young, older adults, and the poor need to be addressed.

The almost hysterical claims about the difference between "ionization"-type and "optical"-type fire detectors does not seem to appear in this groups view of how to reduce residential fire fatalities.

It is very difficult to believe that a shift in the fire detector type will result in the saving of very many lives, given that little information is available able to the failure-to-detect rates of each of these devices. One can only wonder how many failure-to-detect situations occur because of the fire detector element, and how many from dead batteries. What would the casualty rate be if fire detectors also could be powered from the grid, as well as batteries?

And then there is the issue of sprinklers .. it's hard to believe that having sprinklers in homes wouldn't reduce the death rate by perhaps half.

Like this comment
Posted by jb
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 11, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Hey Guys,

Anyone notice how much airtime Kidde has purchased on KQED radio? They must have had word of this for about a month.

Like this comment
Posted by Better Safe Than Sorry
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 12, 2010 at 8:10 am

I'm all for replacing ionization alarms with photoelectric. If they are better at detecting smoldering fires than ionization alarms, I'm more than willing to pay a few dollars more to replace my old alarms. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's removed the battery from an alarm or two from them sounding off because of the toaster.

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

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