New testing prompts new call for action - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

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New testing prompts new call for action

Not all smoke detectors protect equally... Not all smoke detectors protect equally...
Indiana fire marshal Roger Johnson Indiana fire marshal Roger Johnson
Indiana fire officials gathered at Wayne Township fire headquarters to review WTHR and Wayne Township test results. Indiana fire officials gathered at Wayne Township fire headquarters to review WTHR and Wayne Township test results.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Mounting Evidence Prompts Indiana Fire Marshal To Call "Emergency" Meeting About Smoke Alarms

Indiana's state fire marshal is calling an emergency meeting of fire officials from across the state because he's concerned the most popular type of smoke detector in Indiana and in millions of homes across the United States might not save you from a deadly type of fire.

"We've been preaching for years about smoke detectors," said Indiana fire marshal Roger Johnson.  "The thing is, 35,000 firefighters in this state didn't really know that an ionization smoke detector wasn't going to activate for an hour while a smoky fire is building in a house. We thought that smoke detector would go off. Now we know better."

The fire marshal is talking about tests recently conducted by the Wayne Township Fire Department.

Those tests show that ionization, photoelectric and combination smoke alarms all sounded quickly in fast-burning flaming fires.

But in a slow-burning smoldering fire, ionization smoke alarms activated much later than photoelectric and combinations alarms and in some of the tests, they did not sound at all.

Ron Cranfill, a chief with the Wayne Township Fire Department, was surprised as he watched ionization alarms fail to activate during a 78-minute test in which a living room filled with smoke from a slow-burning fire.

"Any smoke detector should go off when you got smoke. We got smoke and it's not going off," Cranfill said just before he put a self-contained breathing apparatus over his nose and mouth to protect him from the smoke-filled room.

After an ionization smoke alarm failed to sound in one of the tests, firefighters placed the alarm directly on the smoldering fire. Even then, as smoke flowed directly into the alarm's ionization chamber, it took another 26 seconds for the smoke detector to activate.

"When you have to take a smoke detector off [the ceiling] and physically put it in a fire to get it to go off, something's wrong," Cranfill said after the test. "I personally believe somebody would have died in that fire if they'd have been asleep in there."

Wayne Township firefighters conducted the tests in conjunction with fire departments from Brownsburg, Speedway and the Indiana Fire Marshal's office. The tests took place in a vacant home on the west side of Indianapolis that firefighters furnished with couches, chairs, curtains, tables, lamps, hanging pictures and other household items to create what firefighters called a "realistic setting."

"House fires don't happen in laboratories, they happen in houses," said Wayne Township Fire Captain Troy Wymer. "We wanted this to be as realistic as possible, and we feel the results show what happens in real fires in a real home."

The recent testing was prompted by firefighters' skepticism about tests conducted this spring by WTHR and the Indianapolis Fire Department.

"Your test just surprised us so much, it caught us off guard," said Brownsburg Fire Department public information officer Ryan Miller. We felt we had to do [additional testing] to see it for our ourselves, for our own peace of mind because we needed to know the right message to send the community about smoke alarms."

Following the new round of tests, Brownsburg and Wayne Township fire officials say they will no longer purchase ionization smoke alarms to distribute to families in their communities. The fire departments will instead focus their efforts on photoelectric and combination alarms. Brownsburg recently received a $60,000 homeland security grant to purchase smoke detectors for residents who need them, and none of that money will be spent on ionization alarms.

"We have conclusive evidence to back up our position," Miller said. "We're about to buy a lot of smoke alarms and they'll all be combination [alarms]."

Other communities around Indiana are expected to follow suit, and that is exactly what Fire Marshal Johnson is hoping to see.

"I've seen enough, and it's now time to act," Johnson told Eyewitness News. "There are 900 fire departments in this state and we all need to have the same message. That message is a photoelectric or combination smoke detector is crucial to your survival during a smoldering fire."

Johnson plans to call representatives from all of those fire department to Indianapolis in early August for what he calls an "emergency meeting" of the state fire service to discuss the importance of photoelectric and combination smoke alarms.

"We don't want anyone to throw out their ionization smoke detectors, but getting a photoelectric is so important," Johnson said. "We have to alert the public to this, and we'd like Indiana to get the message out to everyone in the nation." 

Johnson made his comments Wednesday afternoon at a meeting of central Indiana fire officials. The officials, who represent more than a dozen different fire departments, are part of a task group formed by the fire marshal in June following WTHR's first Deadly Delay reports.

Several attendees suggested changing the state's building code to require photoelectric smoke alarm technology in new residential structures, while others discussed creating statewide public education and media campaigns to inform Hoosiers about the need for photoelectric smoke detectors.

"We have to consider everything," the fire marshal told the group. "We have a responsibility here, and we have to move quickly."

Photoelectric and combination smoke detectors do cost more than ionization smoke alarms, but the fire marshal believes the additional cost is well worth the additional protection they provide.

In June, WTHR, HH Gregg and First Alert, donated 1,000 combination smoke alarms to the Indianapolis Fire Department for families who cannot afford to purchase their own.

WTHR and HH Gregg stores have also partnered to offer residents of central Indiana combination smoke alarms at a significant discount. First Alert dual sensor smoke alarms (which contain both photoelectric and ionization technology) are now available at HH Gregg stores for $19.97, a $10 discount off the retail price.

The nation's largest smoke alarm manufacturers insist ionization smoke alarms provide "adequate escape time in most fires." But this spring, both First Alert and Kidde sent WTHR statements that encourage consumers to install both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarm technology.

Deadly Delay

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