Maintenance helps combat alarming trend in fire safety

Posted: Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Twice annually the calender reminds us to readjust our clocks, but fire officials are urging Alaska residents to add a second step to this biannual ritual to ensure our alarms not only get us to work on time, but out of harm’s way.

“Change your clock, change your batteries,” said Gary Hale, fire marshal for Central Emergency Services in Soldotna.

More than 70 percent of all home fire deaths occur in homes with no fire alarms or nonworking alarms, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Fire and carbon monoxide alarms should be cleaned and receive fresh batteries twice every year, Hale said.

Accumulated dust and grease can reduce sensitivity or trigger a false alarm.

It’s also important to periodically remove smoke alarms and check the manufacture date on the back. Alarms become less sensitive over time and should be replaced if they are 10 or more years old.

But Hale said not to wait six months to test your alarms.

Alarms should be tested at least once a month, and whenever you return from being away for an extended period of time, he said.

Fire alarms chirp when their batteries become weak, but if an alarm chirps while you are away for an extended period of time and batteries die before you return, you may never know the alarm quit functioning.

“The majority of people never think of something like that after being away,” Hale said.

And if you are home when an alarm chirps, don’t just pull the battery out, replace it right away, he said.

“Low and behold, we forget,” he said. “We forget about that battery until it’s too late.”

According to the NFPA, homes that have nonworking alarms outnumber homes with no alarms at all.

Approximately 25 percent of all homes with alarms have a nonworking alarm, and most nonworking alarms fail due to a dead or disconnected battery.

“That’s alarming,” Hale said. “And that’s a statistic that’s been holding steady for six to seven years.”

Hale said alarms are particularly vital in saving people from residential fires at night.

Most residential fires occur between midnight and 6 a.m., when most people are asleep and less likely to notice a fire burning, he said.

“They are going unnoticed and are able to progress,” he said. “What happens is with the poisons that come from incomplete combustion, especially carbon monoxide, it puts you into a deeper sleep. It, in essence, numbs the brain.”

In addition, the vast majority of people don’t smell as well when they are asleep as they do when they are awake, he said.

“Especially when it involves smoke,” he said. “Most people die of smoke inhalation, and the fire may never get to them.”

The carbon monoxide created by a fire replaces the oxygen in the blood of victims, starving the brain and other organs of oxygen and sending a sleeping victim into a deeper slumber.

“It adheres to the blood a lot faster than oxygen,” Hale said.

Building codes require smoke alarms in and immediately outside of all sleeping areas, he said.

He said few people are diligent in maintaining their alarms.

“You’re probably looking at 75 percent of the population out there does not do a complete maintenance.”

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