COLUMBUS, Ohio — The state fire marshal traditionally has recommended that homes have smoke detectors regardless of the type but is considering whether to change that guidance after several northeastern Ohio cities mandated the more expensive of the two common styles of alarms.
"We have to figure out which option is the best option," fire marshal's spokesman Shane Cartmill said. "Are they doing the right thing?"
Fire Marshal Larry Flowers urges residents to get alarms, whether they're the more common ionization smoke alarms or the more expensive photoelectric smoke alarms, because most fatal fires occur in homes that don't have active, working detectors. At least 121 people died because of fires in 2011 in Ohio, and investigators confirmed working smoke alarms in only about 9 percent of those fires.
Flowers put the alarm issue before a task force that includes researchers, a fire investigator and engineers to hear testimony from alarm manufacturers and others. The panel has had six meetings and is expected to issue its recommendations in the next few months.
The recommendations likely will include the suggestion that the U.S. Fire Administration consider expanding the data it collects about smoke alarms to better assess their effectiveness, said task force leader and former state fire marshal Robert Rielage, now fire chief in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming.
Both the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association recommend that homes have both ionization and photoelectric alarms or have alarms that incorporate both types of technology.
Ionization alarms use a bit of radioactive material to ionize the air in a sensing chamber and detect decreased conductivity if combustible materials are present. Those detectors, sold for under $10 at hardware stores, are generally more responsive to fires with higher flames, such as a kitchen grease fire. The more costly photoelectric smoke alarms use beams of light to detect smoke particles and are better for slower, smoldering fires, but they typically cost $5 to $10 more.
In the past year, Cleveland-area officials in Chagrin Falls, Lyndhurst and Shaker Heights decided the photoelectric alarms were the safer choice and passed measures requiring such alarms in certain new homes and some existing ones. The measure in Chagrin Falls even made violating the rule a misdemeanor punishable by a $250 fine and 30 days in jail, though the village doesn't have the fire prevention staff to actively enforce it.
"It's a small town, and it's just me," said Jim Alunni, the local fire marshal.
Fire officials want people to have the best protection possible, but Flowers said he also worries that if people feel they only have one choice and it's too costly, they might not get an alarm at all.
Advocates of photoelectric alarms contend the difference in price isn't so significant, especially when safety is at stake.
"Is the life of your family worth $12, no matter how poor you are?" said Dean Dennis of Cincinnati, who became outspoken on the topic after his 20-year-old daughter, Andrea, was killed along with four other college students in a 2003 fire near Ohio State University. He's presented information about photoelectric alarms to scores of people, including the Cleveland-area officials and the state fire marshal's office.
At least two states, Vermont and Massachusetts, require that newer single-family homes that are being sold include at least one smoke detector that uses or incorporates photoelectric technology, or sometimes more than one.
Home security system providers such as ADT Security Services Inc., Honeywell and Vivint Inc. also say they now use mostly or only photoelectric smoke alarms, citing increased flexibility in the design of the devices and a lower prevalence of false alarms and nuisance alarms prompted by shower steam or smoke from cooking.