Protecting your family in a fire

Posted at: 11/12/2012 6:53 PM
By: Jessica Layton

Every year when you set back your clock, we remind you to change the batteries in your smoke detectors. But how do you know if you're buying the best detector to protect your family? Many people don't realize there are different types on the market. It can be a bit overwhelming, but don't just buy the first one you see. Failing to have the right one can be a matter of life and death.

With three of his grandkids happily piled on top of him,  volunteer firefighter George Sonnefroh makes a point to talk about something close to his heart.

"Don't ever, ever, ever, ever play with fire," he tells them.

And he can't help but think of the child missing from this moment: the little boy who'd be 14 years old now.

It's been nearly ten years since little Anthony Jackson died in a fire at his home, at 24 O'Dell Street in Schenectady. The fire started in a bedroom where Anthony and another child were playing. There were no working smoke detectors in the apartment. The family was getting ready to move.

Asked how many times he's wondered how different things could have been, had there been working detectors, Sonnefroh answers: "I have thought that, but I try not to go there."

Instead he tries to channel that grief into getting others to understand how important it is to have multiple working smoke detectors on every floor of their homes. As a firefighter with Rotterdam District 2,  he says half the homes he goes in don't have enough smoke detectors.

But he wants you to know not all smoke detectors are the same. And you need to have the right one to protect your home and family. We tested out two brands of ionization detectors, which are known for detecting fires with lots of flames. Two brands of photoelectric detectors, which are supposed to detect long, smoldering fires. We also used two dual detectors in our experiment. Those are the detectors which incorporate the aspects of the two other kinds.

Fire safety consultant Pete Lattanzio mounted each smoke detector to the ceiling at the Guilderland Fire Training Tower. Then we placed a soldering iron onto a couch to see which detector would go off first.

We could smell the smoke two minutes into this test. But no alarms went off. To speed up the experiment, we pushed the iron into the cushion and the smoke was more apparent. The First Alert brand lived up to its name. Its dual detector was the first to sound an alarm, followed by the first alert photoelectric. It took both ionization detectors two more minutes to pick up the smoke.

"In a situation of fire two minutes is a lot of time, the fire develops very quickly," Lattanzio said.

In previous tests done around the country the ionization detectors took another 21 minutes or more to sound in a slow smoldering smoky fire.

It does cost more to buy a dual sensor.The ionization detectors we bought ran between 11 and 12 dollars. The photoelectrics were between 12 and 14 dollars and the duals were about 23 dollars. But Lattanzio says it's well worth it.

"You really can't skimp when it comes to something like that. Because ultimately your life and the life of everyone in the house depends on those detectors," Lattanzio said.

It's a lesson George Sonnefroh preaches to everyone he knows. Hoping others will learn from the tragedy that changed his life.  

"The only thing I can do is put the message out and pray some family somewhere will see this. Have something good come coming from something bad," Sonnefroh said.

Smoke detectors do expire - not just the batteries. You should change out your smoke detectors every ten years. Detectors that are hard wired into a security system should be replaced ever 12 years.