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Popular smoke alarms may go off too late, experts warn

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By Jeff Rossen and Avni Patel

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

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

“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.

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.

“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.

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 .