Sounds of safety: Functioning alarms a life-or-death necessity

Fire prevention isn’t something people often ponder, but there are reasons to remain vigilant. For proof, consider a fire department responded to a fire every 24 seconds in 2019.

In 2020, more than 2,700 people died in fires, according to stats released last month by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). There were also 1.4 million fires that accounted for $21.9 billion in estimated property damage.

A portrait of fire chief Howard McFarlen

Huntsville Fire & Rescue Chief Mac McFarlen.

To that end, the NFPA is again urging awareness during Fire Prevention Week, which runs Oct. 3-9. This year’s theme is “Learn the Sounds of Safety!” and focuses on the importance of smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) alarms.

“It’s a sad reality that people often don’t have working smoke alarms or don’t maintain them,” said Huntsville Fire & Rescue Chief Mac McFarlen. “A working smoke alarm is a person’s best chance in getting out of a life-threatening situation.”

The same is true of CO detectors, which can signal the presence of the dangerous, odorless and colorless gas. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 430 people die each year from accidental CO poisoning.

“Carbon monoxide poisoning is a growing concern because so many people are unaware of what causes it,” McFarlen said. “Common causes are improper indoor cooking practices, gas appliances and vehicles left running indoors. Any home with multiple risk factors for carbon monoxide poisoning should definitely have at least one detector.”

Call to action

a photo of a smoke detector installed on a ceiling

Smoke alarms emit three beeps to alert occupants of a potential fire. Batteries should be changed twice a year and alarms should be changed every 10 years to ensure effectiveness.

When activated, household smoke alarms produce a piercing sound designed to spur occupants to action. Three loud beeps means smoke or fire has been detected and anyone inside should evacuate and call 911.

Carbon monoxide detectors emit four loud beeps when CO has been detected. As in the case of an activated smoke alarm, building occupants should evacuate immediately and call 911.

Household alarms are generally battery-powered, though newer building code also requires them to be hard-wired to a home’s power source. These alarms are still equipped with a battery to ensure they continue to work during a power outage.

Don’t ignore the chirp

A photo of a carbon monoxide alarm on a wooden table.

Carbon monoxide alarms emit four beeps when CO reaches a dangerous level. Occupants should exit the dwelling immediately and call their local fire department.

Both types of alarms also issue a warning in the form of a single chirp every 30-60 seconds when battery power is low.

If the unit continues to chirp after the battery has been replaced, it’s a sign the unit should be replaced. Experts recommend replacing alarms about every 10 years.

NFPA advises everyone in the home to familiarize themselves with the alarm sounds and what to do when an alarm is activated. Residents can also find more information about smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in the product’s user guide.

“Alarms not only help protect a structure, but also the occupants,” McFarlen said. “Their importance cannot be overstated. A fire is a traumatic event no matter when it happens, but a functioning alarm can be the difference between life and death.”

Click here for more information on smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.


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