Smoke Alarms: Fire Safety Made Simple

Smoke Alarms: Fire Safety Made Simple Image

In recent decades, revolutions in materials, sensory technology and battery size have taken smoke alarms from expensive, metal plug-in devices to affordable plastic smoke alarms that can cost as little as $10, while the rates of home fire-related deaths have fallen by nearly sixty percent.  Thanks to these innovations, the cost of outfitting a three-bedroom home with professionally installed smoke detectors has dropped from $1,000 in the early 1970s to less than $50 to protect the same house with owner-installed alarms today.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, “The impact of smoke alarms on fire safety and protection is dramatic and can be simply stated.  When fire breaks out, the smoke alarm, functioning as an early warning system, reduces the risk of dying by nearly 50 percent.”

Hailed by the National Fire Protection Agency as “the residential fire safety success story of the last quarter century,” today, smoke alarms are thought to be present in 96 percent of U.S. homes, based on a U.S. telephone survey.  Yet despite these improvements, some experts estimate that as many as 20 percent of U.S. households may not have a working smoke alarm, due almost entirely to cases of dead or missing batteries.  Fortunately, smoke alarms can be easy to install and maintain once you know the basics.

Tips for Installing and Maintaining Smoke Alarms

  1. Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, including the basement, and near all sleeping areas.


  2. Place smoke alarms on ceilings or high on the wall close to the ceiling.  If your home has pitched ceilings, try to mount the alarm near the highest point.  Always follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions (e.g., the distance from the wall or ceiling that the alarm should be mounted).


  3. Test smoke alarms at least once a month and replace batteries at least once per year.  This goes for hard-wired alarms with battery back-ups as well as battery-operated devices. Many experts suggest replacing your batteries as you change your clocks for Daylight Savings Time.


  4. Do not disable smoke alarms – even temporarily – and avoid borrowing smoke alarm batteries for other appliances.  You might forget to replace them.


  5. Teach your child what the smoke alarm sounds like and what to do when he or she hears it (e.g., exit the building immediately by crawling low below the smoke, report to a designated meeting area, and do not hide from firefighters).  Even preschool-aged children (ages 3 and up) can start to learn what to do.


  6. Keep smoke alarms clean by dusting or vacuuming periodically.  Dust and debris can compromise their ability to function.


  7. Remember that smoke detectors don’t last forever.  Yours should be replaced every eight to ten years or as directed by the manufacturer.


More Fire Safety Tips

  • Keep matches, lighters and other flammables out of children’s reach.  Store them in drawers and cabinets protected and secured with child-resistant plastic latches.  Consider replacing matches with child-resistant lighters.


  • If your home has two or more stories, purchase a noncombustible fire-escape ladder and learn how to use it.


  • Create a fire escape plan with at least two exits from every room in the house and review it twice a year.  If you live in an apartment building, plan to use the stairs instead of the elevators during a fire.  An elevator could stop at a burning floor or get stuck during a fire, so never use an elevator in a fire situation.


  • Purchase a fire extinguisher and see the manufacturer’s instructions or your local fire department for more information on how – and under what circumstances – it should be used.  For example, fire extinguishers are appropriate when a fire is both small and contained and when there is a clear escape route available.

Resources and Links

    Sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Fire Administration


  •, see Smoke Alarms
    National Fire Protection Association


  • USFA Kids
    U.S. Fire Administration for Kids

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