Message From The Marshal

CALFIre Banner Proof.jpg
  1. Fire Safety's Greatest Success
  2. What's new?

Smoke alarms have been called “Fire Safety’s Greatest Success Story” but there is still room for improvement: most home fire fatalities still occur at night when occupants are sleeping. Fire is quiet and the toxic gasses have a sort of narcotic effect – impaired judgment, sluggish reflexes, disorientation, etc. Smoke alarms provide the early detection of a fire that could mean the difference between life and death.

​As we prepare for Fire Prevention Week (October 9 – 15) this year, I wanted to share some history. The first automatic electric fire alarm was patented in 1890. In the 1930s, scientists began working with early ionization-type smoke alarms. The first low-cost battery-powered residential smoke alarms were developed in the late 1960s. The Los Angeles Fire Department conducted large-scale tests on this emerging technology in 1969 and 1971. In 1971, residential smoke alarms sold for about $125 each.

​Smoke alarm technology flourished in the 1970’s and prices dropped rapidly: solid-state electronics allowed manufacturers to produce smaller units with longer battery life. The optical smoke alarm was patented in 1972. In 1973, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), developed an approval standard for residential smoke detectors. In 1974, Sears, Roebuck and Company put its name on a battery-operated smoke alarm. The popularity of the Sears alarm prompted other manufacturers to enter the residential smoke alarm market. About 10% of US households owned at least one smoke alarm by 1975. In the late 1970s, residential smoke alarms were first required by law. Testing conducted by the Illinois Institute of Technology showed that putting a smoke detector on each floor of a home was significantly more effective than putting them only outside bedrooms and at the head of basement stairs. These results were so convincing that the NFPA Standard was changed in 1978 to require this “every level" system.

​ By 1980, about half of US households owned at least one smoke alarm. Nationwide, home fire fatalities were cut in half by the widespread acceptance and use of these devices. By the early 1990’s, residential smoke alarms were required to be interconnected and located in all sleeping rooms.

​ The 10-year-lithium-battery-powered smoke alarm was introduced in 1995. In 1999, NFPA began requiring the replacement of smoke alarms after ten years: the sensitivity of detectors changes with time and use, impacting their overall effectiveness. About 95% of US households owned smoke alarms in 2000.

​ Despite these stunning successes, the following statistics are current:
​ ◦21% of residential fire deaths in the US occur in homes without working smoke alarms.
​◦In almost half of these cases, the smoke alarms had missing or disconnected batteries.
​◦Another quarter had dead batteries.