State fire marshal says smoke detector report shows "emergency"


Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Indiana's state fire marshal says he will convene a statewide meeting of fire officials to discuss what actions are needed following an Eyewitness News investigation.

That investigation shows ionization smoke detectors, the most common type of smoke detector sold in the United States, may not activate during a slow-burning smoldering fire until long after a room is filled with thick smoke and high levels of dangerous carbon monoxide gas.

"It is an eye-opening experience watching your report," Fire Marshal Roger Johnson said moments after viewing the WTHR investigation. "As the fire marshal, I cannot take this lightly because this is much too serious."

The investigation features testing of ionization and photoelectric smoke detectors conducted by Channel 13 and the Indianapolis Fire Department. The tests showed ionization detectors, which currently account for an estimated 80% of smoke detectors used in U.S. homes and apartments, usually responded much slower than photoelectric detectors during slow smoky fires.

The testing also showed that photoelectric and dual sensor alarms (which contain both ionization and photoelectric technology) provided up to 26 minutes of extra warning time in smoldering fires. In one test, an ionization alarm did not sound until more than 42 minutes after a smoldering fire had been set inside a couch. By that time, the room was filled with thick smoke and carbon monoxide levels had reached near-fatal levels.

"I thought the ionization smoke alarm would have activated in the first few seconds of the smoke being visible from the couch," Johnson said. "Forty-two minutes - that's a real suprise."

The fire marshal says what he saw in the WTHR report is a call for action:

"We have to sound our alarm now because the problem is, throughout Indiana and throughout the nation, people have this false sense of security right now with smoke detectors. I don't mean to scare people but I think we have five million smoke detectors in this state that are ionization smoke detectors that may fail in the time of need."

The companies that make ionization smoke detectors admit that photoelectric smoke detectors do tend to provide more warning that ionization smoke alarms during smoldering fires. But BRK and Kidde, two of the largest smoke detector manufacturers in the United States, say their ionization smoke alarms have passed rigorous testing and that they "provide adequate time to escape most fires."

The state fire marshal says that's what he used to think, but now he's not so sure.

"I am going to ask fire officials throughout the state to immediately join me to discuss this matter in the form of a summit, Johnson said. "We have to immediately begin a thorough investigation into where we're at, and we have to educate the public."