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Palo Alto regulates fire alarm usage, Stanford waits for more information

Palo Alto’s city council voted to restrict the use of ionization smoke alarms on Nov. 8 in an effort to improve fire safety. This decision makes Palo Alto the second California city to favor photoelectric technology in detecting fires, following a similar decision in Albany in July. Yet this move has faced significant opposition and debate remains about whether or not the move actually constitutes better fire safety practices.

Palo Alto recently restricted the use of ionization smoke alarms, but Stanford will wait for a verdict from the State Fire Marshall's office. (ANDREW STILES/The Stanford Daily)

While studies have shown that ionization alarms may be more effective in detecting fast-starting flash fires, they have also shown that photoelectric alarms do a better job of detecting slow-burning or smoldering fires.

“Many fires start off in a smoldering phase,” said Palo Alto Fire Marshal Gordon Simpkinson, who encouraged the council to restrict the use of ionization alarms. “Those are the types of fires that occur late at night when people are asleep.”

Simpkinson cited studies that show that ionization alarms will sound an average of 15 minutes after a photoelectric alarm in cases of smoldering fires.

“It’s a very significant difference if you have to be able to safely get yourself out of a fire and especially if you’ve got children in the home or you’ve got elderly people that are slower moving,” he said. “You need that extra time to get everybody out safely.”

Simpkinson said ionization alarms are also more likely to produce false alarms, or “nuisance alarms.” often triggered in kitchens by burnt food, such alarms have negative consequences beyond simple irritation. Homeowners often take the batteries out of the alarm, and later forget to put them back in, leaving the area without a functioning smoke detector.

“That’s the main reason we advise people to use photoelectric,” Simpkinson said. “That’s why they don’t have these nuisance alarms that are happening.”

Simpkinson also emphasized other important fire safety measures, including replacing fire alarms more than 10 years old, checking the batteries of detectors currently in use and increasing the number of alarms in any given household.

The city council decided to require the use of either a dual-sensor alarm or the use of both types of alarms in areas where nuisance activation is unlikely. In areas where nuisance activation is more likely — kitchens, for example — the city will require photoelectric alarms only. These regulations will apply to builders, landlords and homeowners making major renovations.

But not everyone agrees that more stringent alarm regulations will translate to better fire safety.

Heather Caldwell, a communications manager for the company Kidde, which produces both types of alarms, explained the company’s opposition to restricting the use of ionization alarms and described the different benefits of both technologies.

“Studies have also found that…both are effective in providing adequate escape time to occupants in real life home fire conditions,” she said.

Gene Gantt works for an advocacy firm in Sacramento and is a member of the California Fire Prevention Officers. Gantt spoke on behalf of president of the Northern Section Fire Prevention Officers Lorin Neyer at the Nov. 8 city council meeting and argued against the restriction of the use of the alarms.

“The concern is that if jurisdictions on their own are banning or asking people not to use a specific type of technology…we believe that’s wrong,” Gantt said.

Gantt himself remains unconvinced by the evidence put forth by Simpkinson and others arguing against ionization alarms.

“Personally I question much of the science that’s being used by the proponents of banning ionization smoke detectors,” he said.

The state fire marshal’s office is putting together a committee to compare the effectiveness of the two different technologies. Starting in December, that committee will spend six months investigating the differences between the alarms and coming up with recommendations.

“Instead of knee-jerking and banning the technology of ionization…you know, wait,” Gantt said. “Sit back and wait and see…what the final outcome is going to be on it.”

For now, Stanford is doing just that.

According to Rodger Whitney, executive director of student housing, while Stanford uses both types of alarms, 99 percent of Stanford housing’s smoke detectors are ionization. The idea that ionization alarms are more likely to be activated by things like burned food could ultimately be relevant for Stanford.

“A lot of times [smoke detectors] are activated by…burned toast…things of that nature,” he said, adding: “We have a lot of those, particularly in graduate housing because they have a kitchen facility.”

But Stanford Fire Marshal Joseph Leung said that unlike Palo Alto, Stanford will wait for the verdict from the state fire marshal’s office before making any changes to current fire alarm use.

Whitney said Santa Clara county code requires ionization detectors, but that Stanford uses some additional photoelectric detectors in certain locations.

“Photoelectric smoke detectors are occasionally recommended for specific situations by our consultants, and are used when the County approves those plans,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Daily.

Leung himself has yet to be convinced of the superiority of photoelectric alarms.

“In my opinion both types of detectors have their place. It really depends on what type of fire you’re detecting — they’re both effective,” Leung said. “At this point, to say that photoelectric work better, I think it’s premature to say that. I’ll wait until the final findings of the state fire marshal before we decide what’s best for Stanford.”

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