Deadly Delay: When will your smoke alarm activate? - FOX5 Vegas - KVVU

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Deadly Delay: When will your smoke alarm activate?

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Two different smoke alarms - photoelectric (front), and ionization (back) Two different smoke alarms - photoelectric (front), and ionization (back)
Interior of an ionization alarm Interior of an ionization alarm
The "aquarium test" begins The "aquarium test" begins
USFA listing on NV guidelines for residential smoke alarms USFA listing on NV guidelines for residential smoke alarms
A carbon monoxide detector shows deadly levels of gas before ionization alarm sounds A carbon monoxide detector shows deadly levels of gas before ionization alarm sounds
LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -

It is a phrase burned into memory: Smoke alarms save lives. The type of alarm installed, however, can make a major difference. And the one in most homes right now could take precious minutes from your family's escape.

Nearly half a million homes and buildings are destroyed every year due to fire, and more than 4,000 people die as a result.

"The first line of defense is the smoke alarm," said Las Vegas Fire and Rescue firefighter Tim Szymanski, who recently had his own run-in with a fire when a bathroom fan ignited and caused $50,000 in damage.

"That's what got (the neighbor's) attention was all the smoke alarms going off," he recalled.

However, what some people don't know is that there are two different alarms - ionization and photoelectric.

One is great for fast-moving fires (ionization), and the other is better at detecting smoldering fires (photoelectric).

And that's what we wanted to test, since the bulk of smoldering fires happen when residents are most vulnerable.

"When you go to sleep at night, your nose goes to sleep with you. You lose your sense of smell," said Szymanski.

To mimic an actual house fire, we performed what is known as an "aquarium test."

We placed a piece of foam from a couch cushion inside a 30-gallon tank and used a soldering iron to start a slow burn - just like a dropped cigarette.

We sealed the tank with the ionization alarm inside and began the timer at the first sign of smoke.

Ionization alarms use a small piece of radioactive material to detect ions in the atmosphere, which are typically burned off in a fire. These detectors typically activate with so-called "false alarms" when food is burned.

It took several minutes before we saw the first wisp of smoke, which is common in smoldering fires.

A carbon monoxide detector that we also placed in the tank revealed it was already a dangerous environment.

After five minutes with smoke filling the tank, there was still no alarm.

"At this point, any person in this room would probably be unconscious right now?" asked FOX5 reporter Matt DeLucia, to which Szymanski replied: "They'd be dead."

Finally, after six minutes and 42 seconds, the ionization alarm sounded - and again, this is the type found in most homes right now.

We cleared the tank of smoke and materials and prepared the photoelectric alarm, which uses a mirror and a beam of light to detect a change in air composition.

"This one sees smoke," said Szymanski as he tested the alarm.

A fresh piece of foam was placed in the tank, and again, we sealed it to prevent toxic air from escaping.

In three minutes and 28 seconds, we heard the alarm - in nearly half the time of the ionization detector.

The lingering question is why photoelectric alarms are not found in every home.

"They're just not prevalent," said Szymanski.

They're not required either. Most states, including Nevada, only demand the standard ionization alarm. But some - like Massachusetts, Maine, and Iowa - now require photoelectric alarms or a combination model.

LINK:Leading firefighting organizations recommend every home have both types.

Szymanski believes a mandate isn't coming to the Silver State any time soon.

"No. There isn't anything in motion at this particular time. I think it's probably going to take more of a nationwide effort," he said.

As of now, it's up to individual homeowners, tenants and landlords.

You can figure out what's in your home right now by looking at the alarm itself. Some of them come with a label. If not, you can tell by how it looks. Ionization alarms can be opened easily and you'll see the parts, including the chamber that detects the ions.

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