Firefighter's invention aims to curb kitchen fires

By Jim Dalrymple

The Daily Herald

Published: Thursday, Oct. 4 2012 3:35 p.m. MDT

In this Sept. 13, 2012 photo, from left, Zack Bomsta, Tyler Allan, Peter Ransom and Michael Sanders work on building a prototype of a stove fire prevention device during a meeting at Rocketship in Provo, Utah. The device was thought up by Provo City firefighter and paramedic Peter Thorpe.

The Daily Herald, Mark Johnston, Associated Press

PROVO, Utah — Peter Thorpe still remembers showing up to a kitchen fire on May 27, 2011. The nearly six-year veteran of the Provo Fire Department described the incident as an "everyday" kind of call, and when his crew arrived they found a lot of smoke and blaring smoke detectors. The homeowner was nowhere to be found.

"There was food burning on the stove," Thorpe told The Daily Herald (http://bit.ly/O7zl1y). "We took care of it, but on the way home I blurted out, 'why can't the smoke alarm turn off the stove.' "

Almost immediately, Thorpe realized he was onto something. He spent a sleepless night mulling over the idea and soon afterward called Michael Sanders, a friend, former LDS missionary companion and Brigham Young University engineering grad student.

Roughly a year and a half later, the partnership has grown to a five-person startup that is nearly ready to take a ground-breaking fire prevention device, dubbed Active Alarm, to the market. According to Thorpe, the device responds to the sound of a smoke detector and, after one minute, cuts off power to electric stoves.

"It's programmed to listen to any standard smoke alarm in a home," he added.

Though the invention isn't quite finished yet, Thorpe said it has the potential to save hundreds of lives. Nationally, he said, the U.S. experiences 155,000 kitchen fires every year, which amounts to a new blaze every 3.5 minutes. Of those fires, Thorpe added, 75 percent result from unattended cooking. The fires also reportedly cause 4,900 injuries every year and kill nearly 500 people.

Thorpe and Sanders both estimate that their new device — which currently looks like a small box that plugs into the wall and has an outlet for the stove cord — could prevent many of those fires. Thorpe added that the device could save a fortune for homeowners who end up with smoke-, fire- and water-damaged homes.

Deputy Provo fire chief Gary Jolley agreed. Like Thorpe, Jolley said the Provo Fire Department responds to numerous kitchen fires every week.

The fires start when people get distracted and forget they're cooking, Jolley explained, and they can cause a lot of damage.

"Some of them we catch and it's just a charred pan," Jolley said. "In others the cooking area is destroyed. The food itself catches fire and the pan gets so hot it can melt. Molten metal can ignite nearby wood. It spreads that way."

Jolley added that while Thorpe and his team are working on the project in their free time, it still helps bring positive attention to the department.

"Provo City is not sponsoring this project but we're pretty tickled to have a guy in our department developing it," Jolley said.

The invention has received similarly positive reviews from other officials. According to Thorpe, the team presented the idea to various state fire marshals, all of whom were excited.

"They unanimously loved the idea," Thorpe said. "That was kind of a big validation. One of them said, 'I don't know why we didn't have this years ago.' "

Sanders said some of the fire marshals have even suggested that someday the device could become a part of the state's fire code.

For now, however, the team is focused on refining the product. After relying on their respective skills in engineering, product design, electricity and other fields the team is finally preparing to manufacture the device.

"What we've been working on a lot is taking the design and making changes to make it manufacturing friendly ... which also equates to cost friendly," Sanders said.

Getting to that point required extensive studying, market research and hours upon hours of testing. The team had to make sure that the device couldn't be set off by cell phones, music or other sounds, Thorpe said, and eventually they overcame those obstacles. Sanders said the team also has entered the device into competitions during the last year and half, where it has been positively received.

Sanders said the team has chosen a manufacturer. At this point, the team is trying to develop business relationships and find more funding. The goal, he said, is to work toward a spring launch date.

Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldextra.com

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