Don’t get fired up! Check your alarm

Fire moves quickly

House fires, industrial fires, a fire that guts an apartment building – all this and an epidemic of arson, last winter to boot. Can we do more to prevent them?  Jim Sutton who has worked in the alarm industry for 22 years and is now education chair of the Manitoba Chapter of the Canadian Security Association says we can, and urged city council to take a series of steps that could save lives.

First of all,  he would like the  city to get the message out that smoke alarms have a 10 year life span, and cannot be relied upon once they reach that 10 year mark.  Jim suspects that the majority of smoke alarms in Winnipeg homes fall into this category. He points out that all alarm manufacturers recommend that their products be replaced at this age.

But who knew?  A quick survey around the office water cooler suggests few of us do. Wayne Chikowski, of the city’s Fire Prevention, insists that  the fire department’s public education branch has emphasized this fact in installing and maintaining fire alarms,  and has made a point of checking for out-of-date alarms in its inspection process.  OK – but when do we ordinary joes ever run into someone from that public education branch, who could give us that information.

Ladies and gentlemen. You read it here first. If your fire alarm is 10 years old it must be replaced for your own protection and safety.  And city council, don’t just sit there when some official tells you a matter is being attended to. Ask yourselves what proportion of users and interested parties could realistically be reached by the campaign its officials say they’re running  – and isn’t there a better way?

What about Winnipeg Transit buses, for example?  You could have that information circling Winnipeg within days – and have it noticed, too. String it across the top of city buses.  The transit system carries little other than public service messages. It’s hard to think of a better way to get the news out.

There’s more.  Jim Sutton proposes that the use of single technology ionization detectors be banned. He says these detectors are notoriously slower to detect smoke than are photo-electric sensors .  They also have a greater tendency to produce false alarms, with the result that many people disable the device to prevent  it from going off every time they make toast.

Well, that argument is still underway.   The United States fire administration, for example, says that  both types of alarms  have certain advantages, each detecting distinctly different yet potentially fatal fires.  The international association of fire chiefs, agreeing,  says that because no one knows which kind of fire will need to be detected,  a smoldering fire or a flaming one, and that each type is best at detecting one of these,  people should be installing both types. The Consumer Product Safety Commission agrees, as does the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Association of  State Fire Marshals in the U.S.  In all a pretty strong lineup authorities.

The odd expert group, it should be added, thinks either type is probably just fine but would happily look at the results of some new tests.  So a ban on ionization detectors – probably a bad idea.   But some public discussion would be useful for starters. Let’s hope it would awaken many building owners to the virtues of having a backup defence, in the form of a dual alarm system.  Education rather than regulation would be a preferred route.

The National Building and Electrical Code requires that all new dwellings have permanently installed – wired in rather than battery-operated – smoke alarms. Manitoba’s Electrical Code, going a step farther, requires that these devices be powered from 120 volt circuits and not a low-voltage source like a security system.  Manitoba is the only province with this requirement, and Jim Sutton says that’s a mistake.

Why: For one thing, the security system has a backup battery, so the detector can still function in the event of a power failure.  As well, the security system usually has a much bigger siren, increasing the likelihood that sleeping occupants will be awakened.  If the security system is monitored, a signal goes out immediately, which greatly reduces the response time.

And he recommends that where Fire Alarm Systems are required to be monitored, it should be required that standards of the Underwriters Laboratories of Canada be met. Why? Because in practice fire alarm systems aren’t monitored to these standards, and in some cases aren’t monitored at all. In short, the public, building residents, or whoever enters these buildings may thing their safety is in good hands, when in fact no one is paying attention.

Someone needs to monitor the monitors.

Mayor Katz: Jim Sutton’s comments call for outside study and a response. What say our readers?

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