TODAY   |  October 03, 2012

Rossen: Some smoke detectors may not go off in time

A scientist at Texas A&M University says he has discovered that one of the most popular kinds of smoke detectors may not protect your family in a fire, because it’s not sensitive enough to go off in time for you to escape your burning house. NBC’s Jeff Rossen investigates.

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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.