Warning: Your Smoke Alarm May Not Detect Smoke

Which kind do you have in your home? Knowing could save your life.

[Editor's Note: In July 2010, Albany became the first California city to require photoelectric-only smoke alarms. Read the full story here.]

Currently, there is great confusion regarding the topic of smoke alarms. There are two types of smoke alarms used to protect residents in the event of a fire; photoelectric and ionization smoke alarms -  both respond differently to smoke and flame.

Ionization smoke alarms react poorly to deadly smoke but faster to flames while photoelectric alarms react much faster to smoke. Ionization alarms are present in more than 95 percent of homes in America and have a high failure rate when it comes to detecting smoke. The problem is, most deadly fires are smoldering fires and not fast flaming fires. By now, most people understand it is deadly smoke and heat that kills you before the flames even reach you. Ionization alarms should be labeled flame alarms and not smoke alarms. 

An example of a fast flaming fire would be a Christmas tree fire, which certainly have claimed their share of resident's lives, but nowhere near the number of lives claimed by smoldering fires. Other fast flaming fires would be kitchen fires, which are the leading cause of residential fires, but rarely do they claim lives. I implore you to watch the videos attached to this story.

Arguably, a greater problem with the ionization alarm is the number of false alarms it renders, thus leading to residents disconnecting the alarm all together. I must include an interesting story – a couple of years ago, with my infinite knowledge, I installed a combination ionization/photoelectric smoke alarm in my living room. Because my home is not large, the house is heated by a wood burning stove. After numerous false alarms (initiated by the invisible smoke) started by my stove, I gave up using the hush button (as it did not silence long enough) and disconnected the battery and remained disconnected until I went to bed. Finally after one season, I placed the combination alarm in my bedroom (replacing the older alarm) and placed a new photoelectric alarm in my living room. Do I need to tell you the results? Not one false alarm. So my point is, how many residents (worldwide) give up and just permanently disconnect the ionization alarm and expose themselves to a potential lethal smoldering fire? Moreover, there have been many fire deaths worldwide with working ionization smoke alarms present but failed to detect smoke. Regrettably, the fire industry has yet to take an official stand to eliminate ionization smoke alarms once and for all.


Marc McGinn

Albany Fire Chief

P.S. I urge you to immediately replace your current ionization smoke alarms that do not detect smoke, with photoelectric smoke alarms.  If you have any additional questions or need assistance I welcome your phone call at 510-528-5773. Learn more at The World Fire Safety Foundation.

Emilie Raguso June 29, 2010 at 09:50 PM
I never heard of this before Chief McGinn brought it to my attention. Have you checked your alarm lately, Albany?
doug turnbull June 30, 2010 at 02:19 AM
My daughter died in an off campus house fire at Miami University in 2005 along with 2 other kids. There were 17 Ionization smoke detectors in the house but by the time the first one went off the 3 kids were already dead. It was a smoldering fire from a cigarette. I've done the research and believe that if there had been photoelectric detectors she would be alive today.
The World Fire Safety Foundation June 30, 2010 at 11:26 AM
Chief McGinn is spot on. It's time to warn the public (and our Fire Fighters) that ionization smoke alarms have now been proven to be dangerously defective - before more innocent lives are needlessly lost. Watch the free film, 'Smoke Alarm Recall' at: www.TheWorldFireSafetyFoundation.org and see the recent series of stories by CBS, 'Deadly Smoke Detectors': www.TheWorldFireSafetyFoundation.org/cbs Please - spread the word. Thank you. Adrian Butler The World Fire Safety Foundation Australia
Emilie Raguso June 30, 2010 at 11:55 AM
Patch will be looking into this topic in more depth later this summer. Thank you both for your comments and your work. It's too bad it takes such tragedy to spur change.
Emilie Raguso July 20, 2010 at 01:37 PM
See an update to this story here: http://patch.com/A-xLZ


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