"Deadly Delay" investigation prompts Congressional action - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

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"Deadly Delay" investigation prompts Congressional action

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Smoke detectors with photoelectric sensors cost less than $20. Smoke detectors with photoelectric sensors cost less than $20.
Vallese says CPSC is not ready to inform consumers about the benefits of photoelectric and dual-sensor smoke alarms. Vallese says CPSC is not ready to inform consumers about the benefits of photoelectric and dual-sensor smoke alarms.
This document shows CPSC staff had concerns about ionization smoke alarms as far back as 1995 This document shows CPSC staff had concerns about ionization smoke alarms as far back as 1995
Indiana State Fire Marshal Roger Johnson says CPSC is putting consumers at risk by not speaking out. Indiana State Fire Marshal Roger Johnson says CPSC is putting consumers at risk by not speaking out.
Indiana Congressman Baron Hill introduced legislation that would require CPSC to take action. Indiana Congressman Baron Hill introduced legislation that would require CPSC to take action.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates 

Lawmakers want CPSC to end silence on photoelectric technology

WTHR's Deadly Delay investigation has prompted federal lawmakers to call for action.

Before taking its holiday recess, the House Energy and Commerce Committee considered legislation last week that would require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to educate American consumers about the important differences among smoke alarms.

"I'm asking for the consumer protection agency to take a look at what's going on with these smoke alarms ... and to help consumers understand what's happening," said Indiana Congressman Baron Hill (D-9th Disrict), who introduced the legislation after seeing WTHR's investigation. "The reports I've seen show there's a real problem out there."

For the past nine months, Deadly Delay has been demonstrating how photoelectric smoke alarms perform well in detecting both fast-burning and slow, smoldering fires. Multiple tests conducted by WTHR in conjunction with Indiana fire departments and university researchers showed that smoke alarms with photoelectric sensors detected smoldering fires much faster than traditional smoke alarms.

The problem is an estimated 90% to 95% of Americans do not have photoelectric smoke alarm technology in their homes. Instead, most consumers rely on ionization smoke alarms. During WTHR's testing, that popular type of alarm quickly detected smoke from fast-burning fires. But in smoldering fires, ionization smoke alarms often required 30 to 40 minutes longer than photoelectric alarms to activate. In some tests, the ionization alarms did not respond at all -- despite being surrounded by thick, toxic smoke.

The findings prompted Indiana State Fire Marshal Roger Johnson to assemble a statewide Smoke Alarm Task Force and to change the state's official position on smoke alarms.

"We're facing an emergency here," Johnson said after watching Deadly Delay in May. "I think we have five million smoke detectors in this state that are ionization smoke detectors that may fail in the time of need... I'd like families to have both types of smoke alarms."

Since WTHR and 13 Investigates first reported our findings, dozens of influential organizations changed their position on smoke alarms, too.

Underwriters Laboratories, The National Institute of Standards and Technology, the United States Fire Administration, and fire departments around Indiana and the nation now say the best protection available is to have both ionization and photoelectric technology in your home.

But when it comes to this life-saving issue, the powerful voice of the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been silent.

"The agency is not prepared to come down on one side or the other," said CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese. "We're just not ready yet."

During an October interview at CPSC's Maryland headquarters, Vallese told WTHR that the nation's consumer protection agency does receive complaints about smoke alarms.  Through the Freedom of Information Act, WTHR obtained those complaints (more than two thousand of them from the past ten years) and many of them specifically cite ionization smoke detectors that reportedly failed to respond to smoldering fires.

One of those fires severely burned Kimberly Lee in Indianapolis.

Another one killed Bill and Christine Hackert in upstate New York.

And yet another killed four children and their mother in Barre, Vermont. 

In those fires and others, evidence suggests ionization smoke alarms failed to work properly.

Yet despite the injuries and deaths, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has said nothing -- at least not to the public.

"The CPSC is still investigating and evaluating the different types of smoke alarms," Vallese said.

The evaluation has taken a long time -- especially in light of an internal CPSC document obtained by WTHR.  Notes from a CPSC meeting with representatives from Underwriters Laboratories show the agency's own researchers "expressed concerns about ionization smoke detectors unable to respond to a smoldering fire."

The meeting took place in October 1995 -- more than twelve years ago, and yet the agency has not publicly warned consumers about potential problems surrounding ionization smoke alarms and the benefits of replacing or supplementing them with photoelectric technology to help better protect families during a smoldering fire.

This summer, a CPSC staff member told WTHR that the agency has taken far too long to publicly address the differences between smoke alarms. The veteran agency employee, who asked not to be identified because he fears reprisal for speaking to a reporter without agency permission, said the CPSC likely will not issue a position on the importance of photoelectric smoke alarms because it does not want to risk scaring American consumers into thinking their ionization smoke alarms are useless.

The agency's spokeswoman, however, said CPSC might soon announce its position.

"I think that the agency is very close in taking its final stand on what we'll be communicating to the public. But when you're the federal government, you don't get a do-over," Vallese said. "When you come out with a message, you better be pretty sure that it's the message you want to send."

Those comments anger fire marshal Johnson.

"If you make a mistake, you correct the mistake," he said. "We see do-overs every day in government."

Johnson disagrees with CPSC's course of action. He believes waiting to educate consumers and firefighters about photoelectric smoke alarms is a dangerous choice.

"The danger is fires are going to occur. People are going to die ... and we have to act as quickly as possible," he said.

Vallese quietly admits installing both photoelectric and ionization technology in homes is a good idea because consumers cannot predict what type of fire might happen in their house.

Vallese: "Consumers that would put both in their homes increase their protection."
Segall: "Why isn't the CPSC saying exactly what you're telling me: that there's a smoke detector out there that may very well protect you better?"
Vallese: "Well, I think I just said it... You may end up being the kickoff."

But it has been more than two months since that interview, and the agency has not kicked off anything.

That is why Congress is now getting involved.

Hill's legislation, introduced as an amendment to H.R. 4040, would require CPSC to end its silence by conducting a public awareness campaign to educate consumers about differences in smoke alarm technology. In his comments to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Hill said "ionization smoke alarms are less effective in [smoldering] fires which can cause deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning before the alarm rings."

Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Michigan) commended Hill for the amendment and, shortly thereafter, made a Hill a promise:

In exchange for withdrawing the smoke alarm amendment from H.R. 4040 (referred to as the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act), Dingell gave Hill his assurance that the House Energy and Commerce Committee would forward the smoke alarm issue to CPSC in the committee's full report.

"We will see to it that proper language is inserted into the report calling upon the CPSC to commence an appropriate proceeding ... and we will follow up on this, I assure [you]," Dingell explained to Hill.

Hill agreed to the deal after learning that Dingell had secured support for the smoke alarm action from the committee's ranking member, Joe Barton (R-Texas), as well as Bobby Rush (D-Illinois) and Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky), the chair and ranking member (respectively) of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

"We have support to make sure it gets to the agency and we'll also be sending a letter explaining what we want them to do," Hill said. "The bottom line is we're trying to get the attention of the regulators and we need the consumer protection agency to do something."

What type of smoke detector do you have?

Photoelectric smoke detectors usually have the word PHOTOELECTRIC right on them. You might see a big "P" or a "blue symbol". And if you see the words "dual sensor," that means the smoke detector has both photoelectric and ionization built in. 

If you don't see any symbols chances are, it's probably an ionization smoke detector.  Those alarms are sometimes marked with a letter I, or other symbols

When you are taking a look at your smoke detector, please make sure to check the battery. That's crucial. Also, make sure you and your family practice an escape plan. 

The bottom line: Smoke detectors do save lives. Adding a photoelectric smoke detector to your home will usually give you more warning in a slow-burning, nighttime fire.

Get A Discounted Dual-sensor Smoke Alarm - WTHR-TV and hhgregg arranged to ship thousands of dual-sensor (featuring both ionization and photoelectric technology) smoke detectors to central Indiana. Click the link to see details.

Links
Rep. Baron Hill - Smoke alarm amendment to HR 4040
CPSC meeting log - This documents a 1995 meeting on the status of recommendations made by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to upgrade the smoke detector standard.
Deadly Delay archive

 

 

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