Council to consider changes in smoke detector law

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Most deadly house fires happen when people are asleep and there's a push in Indianapolis to put safer smoke detectors in people's homes.

The City-County Council is considering a change in city law that would require a different type of smoke detector in houses and apartments.

It would require battery-operated alarms to have a 10-year-life span and be tamper-proof. Far too often, firefighters called to a fire later find the alarm's batteries dead or removed because of the nuisance factor.

What Republican Councilor Ben Hunter calls "that chirping take the battery out and then forget to put it back in."

Hunter and Democrat Mary Moriarity Adams are co-sponsoring a proposal to update the city's smoke detector ordinance to include the 10-year battery alarms.

"These are typically the ones you find in the Indianapolis market anyway. You go to Lowe's or Home Depot and it's the industry standard. It's what we're moving toward as best practice," Hunter said.

But Republican colleague Christine Scales believes the change doesn't go far enough.

Scales said, "I like the 10-year (alarm), that's essential, but I want to take it a step further."

Scales wants to require all dwellings to have photoelectric alarms versus ionization. Ionization alarms are what the vast majority of people have now. They pick up tiny particles generated by a flame, usually the hot fires caused by cooking accidents. They're also the detectors that go off when you burn something on the stove, causing that "nuisance" alarm.

Photoelectric alarms pick up the particles generated by smoldering fires, for instance those caused by smoking or an electrical problem.

As Scales said, numerous studies show "photoelectric detectors give people more chances and time to leave home safety."

Six years ago, 13 Investigates did a series of reports showing the difference between the two types of smoke detector. Bob Segall worked with several fire departments and fire safety experts conducting several difference tests.

He showed that over and over, that photoelectric alarms provide significantly more time to escape the smoking fires most likely to result in death.

Following those tests, Roger Johnson, the state fire marshal at the time, changed Indiana's position on smoke alarms.

Johnson said all homes should be equipped with photoelectric or dual sensor smoke alarms saying "if you go to sleep at night with just an ionization smoke alarm, you're playing a game of Russian roulette."

Johnson tried to get state lawmakers to change the law, but was unsuccessful, however, a handful of other states and cities now require photoelectric alarms.

Asked about Scales' effort, Johnson said he "completely supports it."

He said he plans to lobby again for a statewide law in 2015, when there's "more support" and public awareness about the alarm's effectiveness at saving lives.

Hunter said he's not sure the city is ready to take that step just yet.

"I think it's something we should analyze and look at, it's probably a better standard," he said.

But he also expressed concerns about the cost. Photoelectrics can cost $10 more than ionization alarms and Hunter said "falls upon low-income families to purchase them."

In response Scales says, "Yes, they're going to be a little more expensive, but if the cost is a saved life that's where we want to go."

(The 10-year ionization alarms cost more too, but Hunter says with no need to replace batteries they're cheaper in the longer run.)

Indianapolis Deputy Fire Chief Fred Pervine said he felt there were three types of smoke detectors - the basic (ionization), the better (photoelectric) and the best - or a combination of both.

"In a perfect environment, we'd like to get the photoelectric, that would be nice," he said. "But when we give away smoke detectors we give them away to people who can't afford them...I'd rather give away 1,000 of the ionization ones than 100 of the photoelectrics."

The detectors the fire department gives away are donated ionization models. Johnson calls that giving away "false security."

A council committee will take up the smoke detector issue Tuesday evening.