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Video: Rossen: Some smoke detectors may not go off in time

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    >>> back now at 7:44. this morning on "rossen reports," startling claims that the most popular kind of smoke detector may not protect your family in a fire. today national investigative correspondent jeff rossen is here with the details. jeff, good morning.

    >> hey, savannah, good morning this. really does affect all of us. we've all been there. you burn toast in your house and suddenly your smoke alarm goes off, so you assume it's ultra sensitive, but experts say think again. turns out smoke from burning food is much different than smoke from burning furniture. in fact, we found in a real fire your smoke detector may not go off in time to save your family.

    >> 911.

    >> i have a fire in my home. i've got a baby i've got to crawl with.

    >> reporter: a desperate mother waking up to a house full of smoke trying to save her kids.

    >> as i'm trying to get upstairs, my first thought is the four people that i have upstairs to try to make sure that they are not scared to death, that they are safe and that they are okay.

    >> i have four children dead in the house. it's burning. it's incinerated.

    >> reporter: the kids didn't make it. cause of death , smoke inhalation , so why didn't they have more warning? after all the house had working smoke detectors .

    >> we put fresh batteries in the smoke detectors . we pushed the test buttons so i knew they worked, and then when it was time they never went off.

    >> reporter: amanda says she had the most common type of smoke detector used in 90% of homes, inexpensive, easy-to-find alarms that rely on ionization technology. work well to detect fires with fast flames, but experts say some of the most deadly fires are the smouldering smokey kind that can fill your home with toxic gases while you sleep. experts say in those fires ionization alarms don't work well, going off way too late or not at all.

    >> and that means that the individuals could have a fire in their home and never receive a warning.

    >> reporter: don russ sell a scientist at texas a&m . he's run hundreds of tests. when i go to the store to buy a smoke detector , i assume it's going to sound when there's smoke.

    >> that's a reasonable assumption, but it's wrong.

    >> reporter: his findings are a bombshell in the industry, that the most popular smoke detectors may not help you in a fire. you're about to see just how scary that can be. we had dr. russell set up a test at the texas a&m engineering extension service . first, dr. russel placed three ionization detectors, the kind most of us have in a room with a couch. next, fire fighters set a slow smokey fire using a soldering iron . we're watching on monitors outside. fire fighters say every minute counts to get your family out, but watch, the room is filling up with smoke, and the smoke detectors still haven't gone off. it's been 30 minutes .

    >> the smoke is all the way towards where the smoke detectors are, and we still don't have any alert from the smoke detectors .

    >> reporter: finally at 36 minutes.

    >> we do have a smoke detector going off.

    >> reporter: minutes later, the other two go off. just as the couch is about to erupt in flames.

    >> it's way too late. too dangerous. you couldn't get out of that room reliably.

    >> reporter: remember, this is the type of smoke detector most of us have, but there's another technology out there that experts say gives you better warning in these fires. it's called a photoelectric detectors and even government tests show it goes off much sooner in smokey fires. watch what happens when dr. russell sets up another test, this time with a photoelectric next to those three ionization detectors. 17 minutes in with barely any smoke in the room the photoelectric sounds the alarm.

    >> photoelectric is telling us you've got a fireworks get out, solve the problem, get out of house.

    >> reporter: meanwhile, toxic smoke is overtaking the room. in fact, it takes another 21 minutes before any ionization detectors go off. these seasoned fire fighters are shocked.

    >> all i can think about about was my own family, and if i would have relied on ionization, my family probably wouldn't make it out so with the photoelectric, they would have had plenty of time to get out.

    >> reporter: photoelectric technology has been around for decades, and while the leading smoke detector companies make photoelectric alarms, they still sell most of their products without it.

    >> i think it's probably a business decision.

    >> reporter: the ionization detectors cost less money to make than the photoelectric.

    >> that is a correct statement.

    >> reporter: companies told us all their detectors provide adequate escape time and meet safety standards .

    >> they will only respond when there is government pressure to do so.

    >> reporter: so we went straight to the government agency overseeing the companies, the consumer product safety commission . why not tell the smoke detector companies make sure to get that photoelectric technology into all of your detectors so you're covered completely? why not mandate it?

    >> because both technologies are working and saving lives.

    >> reporter: we know of several cases where the smoke alarm people say just did not go off.

    >> in those cases, that's -- they need to practice a fire escape plan to make sure that they can get out.

    >> reporter: if the smoke detector didn't get out and the house is full of smoke by the time that it does, what does an escape plan do?

    >> it helps them escape better when the smoke alarm eventually goes off.

    >> reporter: but eventually isn't good enough for amanda deputy who lost nearly everything.

    >> i would like to think that if i had known that i might have a familiar life seven instead of a family of three.

    >> reporter: to be clear no, one is saying throw out your smoke alarm . fire officials say the best advice is to have both technologies. you can even buy a dual detector that has both those technologies in one, savannah, though it costs a little more money.

By
TODAY
updated 10/3/2012 7:46:30 AM ET 2012-10-03T11:46:30

Startling claims that popular kinds of smoke detectors may not protect your family in a fire: TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen reports.

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When you buy a smoke detector, you assume it will sound quickly in a fire, giving you plenty of time to escape. But some experts warn that's not always true. In fact, we found that the most common type of smoke detector — the kind you probably have in your house right now — may not go off in time, even when surrounded by thick, toxic smoke, giving little warning to get your family out.

Have an idea for Rossen Reports? Email us by clicking here!

Amanda Debuty awoke to a house full of smoke, her children trapped upstairs. “As I'm trying to get upstairs, my first thought is the four people that I have upstairs, that they’re not scared, that they’re safe,” she said tearfully.

Tragically, the kids didn't make it. Cause of death: Smoke inhalation. So why didn't they have more warning? After all, Amanda said, the house had working smoke detectors.

“We put fresh batteries in the smoke detectors, we pushed the test button, so I knew they worked,” Amanda said. “And then when it was time, they never went off.”

Amanda said she had the common type of smoke detector, used in 90 percent of homes: inexpensive, easy-to-find alarms that rely on “ionization” technology. They work well to detect fires with fast flames. But experts say some of the most deadly fires are the smoldering, smoky kind that can fill your home with toxic gases while you sleep.

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In those fires, experts say, ionization alarms don't work well, going off way too late — or not at all. “And that means the individuals could have a fire in their home and never receive a warning,” said Dr. Don Russell, an engineering professor at Texas A&M who’s run hundreds of tests.

Dr. Russell says that while it is “reasonable” for a consumer to assume that a smoke detector will sound when there's smoke, it’s a wrong assumption to make. “It's very scary and that's why people die every year because of this problem.” His findings are a bombshell in the industry — that the most popular smoke detectors may not help you in a fire.

An alarming test
We had Dr. Russell set up a test at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. First he placed three ionization detectors, the kind most of us have, in a room with a couch. Next, firefighters set a slow, smoldering fire, using a soldering iron.

Firefighters say every minutes counts to get your family out, so you want the earliest warning possible. But in our test, the room filled up with smoke and the smoke detectors still hadn't gone off after 30 minutes.

Finally, at 36 minutes, one of the three detectors sounded. Minutes later, the other two went off — just as the couch was about to erupt in flames. “It's way too late, it's too dangerous," Dr. Russell said. "You couldn't get out of that room reliably."

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Remember, this was the type of smoke detector most of us have. But there's another technology out there that experts say gives you better warning in those fires. It's called a photoelectric detector, and even government tests show it goes off much sooner in smoky fires.

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Dr. Russell set up another test — this time with a photoelectric next to those three ionization detectors.

Seventeen minutes in, with barely any smoke in the room, the photoelectric sounded the alarm. “Photoelectric is telling us you've got a fire, get up, solve the problem, get out of the house,” Dr. Russell said.

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“And what are the ionization detectors telling us?” we asked.

“They're asleep.”

Meanwhile, toxic smoke overtook the room. In fact, it took another 21 minutes before any ionization detectors went off.

The seasoned firefighters who observed the test were shocked. “All I could think about is my own family — my own family and my kids trying to get out in that, and if I would've relied on ionization, my family probably wouldn't make it out,” said Houston firefighter Brian Lien. “With the photoelectric they would've had plenty of time to get out.”

While the leading smoke detector companies do make photoelectric alarms, they still sell most of their products without the technology.

“I believe it’s a business decision,” Dr. Russell said, citing the fact that photoelectric alarms are more costly to make than ionization alarms.

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The companies told us that all their detectors provide adequate escape time and meet safety standards. “They will only respond when there is government pressure to do so,” Dr. Russell said.

So we went straight to the government agency overseeing the companies — the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Why not tell these smoke detector companies make sure to get that photoelectric technology into all of your detectors so you're covered completely?” we asked. “Why not mandate it?”

“Because both technologies are working and saving lives,” said Arthur Lee, senior engineer with the commission.

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“We know of several cases where the smoke alarms, people say, just did not go off.”

“In those cases, they need to practice a fire escape plan to make sure they can get out,” Lee said.

“But if the smoke detector didn't go off, and the house is full of smoke by the time it does, what does an escape plan do?” we asked.

“It helps them escape better when the smoke alarm eventually goes off,” Lee said.

But “eventually” isn't good enough for those who've lost loved ones. For Amanda Debuty, having a photoelectric is a matter of life and death. “I would like to think that if I had known, that I might have a family of seven instead of a family of three,” she said.

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

Three states have changed their laws to require photoelectric technology in new homes. The International Association of Firefighters wants to see it required too, saying it will save lives.

And to be clear, no one is saying "throw out your smoke alarm." Fire officials say the best advice is to have both technologies. You can buy them separately or, even easier, you can buy a dual detector that has both technologies. But they're much harder to find on store shelves; you have to look very carefully at the package. And they do cost a little more.

Fire safety experts say that to have the best protection, install the smoke alarms on every level of the home, outside sleeping areas and inside bedrooms. It's also important to make sure the batteries are working and test them about once a month, and replace the batteries at least once a year.

To read statements in response to this report from smoke alarm manufacturers and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, click here .

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.

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