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Smoke Detectors Blamed in Pennsylvania Deaths

 

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By DANA DiFILIPPO
The Philadelphia Daily News

THE SEPTEMBER NIGHT that turned Desiree Wylie's days into a marathon of misery started with a full bladder.

It was a half-hour before midnight. She awoke to use the bathroom. She knew something was wrong when she flipped the light switch and nothing happened. In the hallway, she felt a draft. Then, she smelled smoke.

Horror hit hard.

"Jessica! Fire!" she screamed up the stairs, where her 22-year-old daughter, Jessica Torres, slumbered with her sons, 4 and 3.

The ensuing chaos was full of noise: the women's cries of terror and calls for help, the thundering of their feet as they scrambled to escape, the sounds of destruction below as fire devoured the first floor.

But not the shriek of a smoke detector.

Wylie said she had at least seven scattered throughout her three-story home in Coatesville, all with fresh batteries she had put in to prepare for a recent house inspection.

"I didn't hear a single one going off," Wylie said. "All I heard was the kids screaming, us panicking."

Although firefighters universally trumpet the life-saving benefits of smoke detectors, Wylie witnessed - with heartbreaking results - the shortcomings of ionization alarms, the cheapest and most commonly used smoke detectors.

Because ionization detectors are less sensitive to the smoke produced by smoldering fires, they can take a half-hour or more longer than their competitor - photoelectric detectors - to alert residents of brewing danger.

For Wylie, that delay was the difference between life and death.

Within seconds, the smoke grew so thick that she couldn't get to her 11-year-old son, Brian Kelly Westmoreland Jr. It turned so toxic that Torres, who had smashed a third-floor window to escape, couldn't get to her sons, Tyrone and Tyzhier Hill, who had collapsed unconscious out of reach.

All three boys died of smoke-inhalation in the Sept. 21 blaze, which smoldered in a trash can behind the house before spreading. Investigators ruled the fire at Wylie's house accidental.

A crusade against ion detectors

Tragedies like Wylie's infuriate Jay Fleming, a Boston deputy fire chief. He has made it his life's crusade to educate fire and government officials and the public about the potentially deadly deficiencies of ionization, or ion, detectors.

"It's needless, just totally didn't have to happen," Fleming said of the Coatesville boys' deaths.

When it comes to fire protection, consumers have three choices in smoke-detector technology: ion or photoelectric alarms, or a hybrid of the two.

The ion device, which uses a small amount of radioactive material to create an electric current within the unit, sounds when smoke particles interrupt the current.

Photoelectric detectors use optical technology; they go off when smoke particles reflect part of a light beam onto a photo detector.

Priced as low as $7, ion alarms typically cost half as much as their photoelectric counterpart. And although both technologies have been around for decades, photoelectric units until the early 1980s had to be hard-wired, making them less popular than the battery-operated ion alarms.

That affordability and convenience made the ion alarms a best-seller. The National Fire Protection Association figures that 96 percent of American homes have smoke detectors, and Kidde, one of the top manufacturers of both detectors, estimates that 90 percent of those alarms are ions.

But the two technologies react differently to different smoke.

In flaming fires, ion alarms activate faster, by about 30 seconds, because they are more sensitive to the tiny particles such fires emit.

But smoldering fires, the type that happen overnight when people sleep, produce larger particles that set photoelectric alarms off faster - by as much as 30 minutes, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and controlled burns done by Fleming for Hook, a magazine for firefighters.

Ion alarms also sometimes fail to sound in smoldering fires even when smoke has thickened enough to significantly degrade visibility, NIST acknowledged in August 2007 testimony to the Boston City Council.

Further, ion alarms are easily triggered by shower steam and cooking smoke, Fleming found, a drawback that prompts plenty of frustrated folks to yank out - and sometimes forget to reinsert - the batteries.

Because smoke can incapacitate and kill in minutes, Fleming says, such shortcomings are unforgivable.

"Since 1990, the industry's and government's refusal to recognize this problem has resulted in thousands of needless deaths," Fleming said.

Fleming believes the best fire protection is a photoelectric detector, and says fire-safety advocates should educate the public about its superiority. He wants manufacturers to put warning labels on the packaging of ion alarms, alerting buyers to their delay in smoldering fires.

And fire investigators should start keeping track of what kinds of detectors, if any, were present in burned homes or businesses to develop data that would demonstrate which technology is better, he said.

Hook took up Fleming's cause in an exhaustive report last July, and the International Association of Fire Fighters joined their efforts shortly afterward.

"Don't just change your batteries; change your smoke detector too," IAFF officials urged in an October announcement, in which they called for federal, state and local leaders to change building codes to require photoelectrics.

Coatesville, Philly share a goal

Nowhere is the issue more pressing than Coatesville, a city ablaze.

Firefighters in the 2-square-mile burg have responded to about 35 arsons since January 2008. As investigators scramble to determine who is setting the fires, some residents and experts say authorities should focus more on whether residents have smoke detectors effective enough to save them.

"The terror we still live through, watching everybody else's house burn up here - this is why I go through counseling, this is why I'm medicated," Wylie said. "It's like we relive our fire every time" the arsonists strike.

Still, many industry and fire-safety experts insist that ion alarms provide adequate escape time and warn that the debate could shake consumer confidence in smoke detectors.

"They all have their pros and cons," Coatesville Fire Chief Kevin Johnson said of the types of alarms. "But the bottom line here is that it's better to have any kind than none at all."

Johnson has stepped up efforts to install ion alarms in homes and businesses in the wake of the arson rampage.

"We have citizens, they don't have smoke alarms at all," added Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. "So our first goal is to get everyone with smoke alarms. Two, to educate them what to do when the smoke alarms go off and plan with their family an escape plan. Then after that, we want to make sure that they practice that [escape plan] every once in a while. Whether it's ionization or photoelectric, I'm not concerned with that as much as I am first getting everyone in a safety frame of mind."

Kidde spokeswoman Heather Caldwell agreed: "The most important thing is to have a working smoke alarm in your home, regardless of the technology."

Fleming brushes off such logic.

"I'm not saying people should get rid of ionization alarms. They are better than nothing," Fleming said. "But it's like arguing that you don't need airbags in your car because you already have seat belts. We need to educate the public not only about the benefits of smoke detectors in general, but of photoelectrics in particular."

Fleming has at least one local supporter.

"He's correct, and he has the bodies to back it up, unfortunately," said Brian McBride, president of Local 22, the city firefighters' union.

McBride said he recently replaced ion alarms in his home and the homes of two of his grown children with photoelectric alarms.

"It's a small investment [to buy photoelectrics], and in these days of fire-company cuts and the increased response time they bring, you're going to want every bit of escape time you can get," McBride said.

But Ayers, who uses ion alarms in his home, said he won't push for photoelectrics until they're the national standard. While the National Fire Protection Association and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission agree that photoelectrics are faster in smoldering fires, they also emphasize that both technologies allow enough escape time in most fires.

"When you hear about this debate, you say: 'Wait a minute, are we putting something out there that's not giving people enough time to get out?' But then we look at the data, the studies, the cost, and I think we can do the ionization until we find more compelling data that would make the whole country change [to photoelectrics]," Ayers said.

The Philadelphia Fire Department spends about $100,000 a year to put about 30,000 free ion alarms in city homes and businesses, Ayers said. A fourth of that money comes from the city, and corporate and philanthropic donations cover the rest, he said.

To switch to photoelectrics, "we'd need to double or triple that. But we want to get the most [alarms installed] that we can with the funds that we receive."

Class-action suit brewing

Still, Ayers and other fire chiefs might not have time to wait for government entities to change policies.

A Boston law firm filed a class-action suit last summer against Kidde and First Alert, alleging that the two companies have misled and imperiled citizens by not alerting them to problems with ion alarms.

The lawsuit could affect thousands of people.

In 2007, fires in 530,500 structures resulted in 3,000 deaths, 15,350 injuries and $10.6 billion in property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

In Philadelphia, 39 people died in 20 fires last year, said Chief Daniel Williams, a fire spokesman. Smoke alarms were present and sounded in 10 of those blazes, while in another six, firefighters found detectors that either hadn't activated or had dead or no batteries, Williams added.

"Fire companies want to blame fire deaths on a lack of smoke detectors, but half of your [Philadelphia's] fatal fires had working smoke detectors," Fleming said. "So do you see the problem there?"

Jessica Torres and Desiree Wylie do. At least now.

Before Sept. 21, they didn't know about more than one kind of smoke detector, or that theirs might not do what it was supposed to do. Although more than four months have passed, their heartache remains just as raw as the day they lost Brian, Tyrone and Tyzhier.

"I believe we all would have made it out, if we'd just had more time," Wylie said. "We might have lost the house, but we would have each other. The boys would still be here, and we would have had each other."

 
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