Outdated smoke detectors incite Vassar’s infamous fire alarms

Let’s face it: Vassar College has a fire alarm problem. For a typical resident on campus, it isn’t exactly a rare experience to be sleeping in your room one moment and then be standing outside the dorm building in your pajamas the next moment because the fire alarms have gone off. In fact, these bi-weekly evacuations have become so commonplace that the majority of students just groan and contemplate living off-campus. What makes the whole ordeal so much more frustrating for students is that almost all of these dorm evacuations are the result of nuisance alarms triggered by something completely unrelated to an actual emergency.

The drowsy students aren’t the only people who are greatly inconvenienced by these frequent false alarms. Everytime the lights flash and the sirens shriek in a dorm building, the good people at the Arlington Fire District (AFD) have to rush onto campus in their fire engines to respond to the alarm. According to a recent investigation by The Miscellany News last fall, the AFD responded to a total of 126 campus fire calls in the 2016-17 school year (The Miscellany News, “Vassar Puts Strain on Arlington Fire District Budget,” 11.15.2017). That investigation also found that Vassar College had nearly three times the number of calls in 2016 compared to peer colleges like Middlebury and Colgate, as well as the highest cost per call of around $2,871. Add this to the fact that the Vassar administration pays only $40,000 to the AFD each year despite draining an estimated $1 million of their funds, and we have here a rather shameful problem.

Needless to say, something has to change. While many students may attribute the frequency of these nuisance alarms to the poor decisions of their fellow residents, a common source of blame is the smoke detectors and how they are either faulty or too sensitive. But how valid is this claim? Is there really something wrong with the way that smoke detectors are set up at Vassar? Most of us don’t really know how they work, much less how to accurately pinpoint what’s exactly faulty about them, so it may be a good idea to learn more about these fire-protection devices that we complain about on a weekly basis.

The first thing to remember about smoke detectors is that they really do make a difference in saving lives. According to a 2015 report by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fires in homes with no smoke alarms caused an average of 940 deaths per year from 2009 to 2013 (NFPA, “Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fires,” 09.2015). However, the data showed that homes with at least one smoke detector had a 40 percent lower death rate from fires than homes that didn’t have any. It’s also important to note that the likelihood of a smoke detector suddenly malfunctioning is pretty slim. While the report mentions that 21 percent of deaths were caused by fires in homes where the smoke detectors were present but failed to operate, the primary reasons behind these failures were either improper care or residents intentionally disabling them to stop nuisance alarms (NFPA). As much as we hate our smoke detectors for making us stand outside in the freezing cold, we would definitely be worse off if we did not have them around.

With that being said, smoke detectors are far from perfect. In fact, some experts argue that their flaws have cost many people their lives. This is because in many cases, by the time the smoke detector activates, it’s too latethe smoke and flames have already spread everywhere. But how could that be possible? According to Joseph Fleming, a deputy fire chief with the Boston Fire Department, the fault lies with ionization smoke detectors.

As it turns out, there are two main types of smoke detectors. The most common type is the ionization smoke detector, which relies on an ionization chamber and a small amount of a radioactive element called Americium-241 (Mental Floss, “How Do Smoke Alarms Work?” 01.08.2013). Essentially, this radioactive material emits alpha particles that ionize (or remove an electron from) the oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the air within the ionization chamber. As a result, a small but reliable current is created inside the smoke detector. However, when smoke enters this chamber, the smoke particles disturb the current and the alarm is triggered.

It may surprise people that these everyday smoke detectors contain a radioactive element, but they pose few, if any, health hazards. A 2001 report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated that this miniscule amount of Americium-241 gives off a radiation dose of less than 0.002 millirems each year (U.S.NRC, “Backgrounder on Smoke Detectors,” 05.22.2017). That’s less than the background radiation you get from walking around in the East Coast for about twelve hours. Just make sure not to swallow the radioactive element inside the device and you’ll be fine.

But the problem with ionization smoke detectors has less to do with their radiation dose. Rather, Fleming argues that ionization smoke detectors have difficulty responding quickly to smoke caused by smoldering fires.

“There are tons of studies that conclude that an ionization smoke detector will not give you enough time to get out of the house in a smoldering fire. I believe that somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people have died unnecessarily over the past 20 years because they didn’t have adequate information about their smoke detectors,” states Fleming (City Limits, “Push to Address Possible Danger in Smoke Detectors,” 03.27.2013).

According to Fleming, ionization smoke detectors are excellent at detecting smoke caused by very hot, fast-moving fires. While that is helpful, most of these fast-moving fires occur when people are awake and can quickly put out the fire or escape the building. These are the types of fires that often occur in cooking accidents, in which the smoke detector is treated like a nuisance rather than a life-saving device. In contrast, ionization smoke detectors are slower to detect smoke from smoldering fires, which begin quietly and often suffocate their victims first. Often caused by unattended cigarettes and faulty electrical wiring, these types of fires are extremely common at night when residents are sleeping and depend on their smoke detectors to wake them up (Freakonomics, “How Many Lives Do Smoke Alarms Really Save?” 02.06.2012).  

As a result, Fleming urges everyone to use photoelectric smoke detectors instead. Unlike ionization smoke detectors, photoelectric smoke detectors use a T-shaped chamber where an LED sends a beam of light across the top (Mental Floss). When smoke enters the photoelectric smoke detector, the light hits the smoke particles and scatters, striking the photocell at the base of the T-shaped chamber. Once a certain amount of light hits this photocell, the alarm is set off. According to studies by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a photoelectric smoke detector senses smoldering fires on average 30 minutes faster than an ionization smoke detector does, giving occupants much more time to escape (NIST, “Statement for the Record,” 08.06.2007).

However, an important thing to remember is that each type of smoke detector has its own strengths and weaknesses. While photoelectric detectors react faster to smoldering fires than ionization detectors, critics are quick to point out that photoelectric detectors have more difficulty responding to the fast-moving fires that ionization detectors deal with easily. This is because photoelectric detectors are not very sensitivethere has to be a lot of smoke, enough to block out the light, to activate them (HowStuffWorks, “How Smoke Detectors Work,” 04.01.2000). They have no difficulty detecting smoldering fires since they produce a lot of smoke, but they don’t perform as well with fast-moving flames.

While photoelectric detectors definitely have their disadvantages, the flaws of these two types of smoke detectors are nowhere close to being on the same scale. As stated earlier, ionization detectors respond 30 minutes slower to the deadly smoldering flames than do photoelectric detectors. In contrast, photoelectric detectors are only 50 seconds slower than ionization detectors when it comes to sensing fast-moving flames (NIST). But to be fair, fast-moving fires do spread much quicker than smoldering fires, so one can argue that those extra 50 seconds are still valuable.

Nevertheless, many experts, including Fleming, have been pushing for legislative change to require the use of photoelectric smoke detectors instead of ionization smoke detectors. Because photoelectric detectors are more expensive than ionization detectors ($26 compared to $13) and most state laws remain silent on which one to use, the majority of buildings only use ionization detectors. Yet, studies have shown that smoldering fires account for 54 percent of deaths while fast-moving fires account for only 16 percent (WAHI Spring Conference, “Ionization vs. Photoelectric Smoke Alarms,” 03.14.2015).

Photoelectric smoke detectors also have an additional major advantage over traditional ionization detectors: They are less likely to cause nuisance calls. In fact, a 2000 study conducted in Alaska found that homes with ionization detectors had more than eight times the rate of false alarms than those with photoelectric detectors (PubMed, “Ionization and Photoelectric Smoke Alarms in Rural Alaskan Homes,” 08.2000). As it turns out, it doesn’t take much to trigger a nuisance alarm from an ionization detector. Anything from burnt toast to shower steam to even high humidity can set these smoke alarms off (WHYY, “Extreme Humidity Can Set Off Smoke Alarms,” 07.05.2013). This high sensitivity is not only a source of annoyance but also an actual health hazard: Six people died in the 1990 Boston fire because the residents turned off their ionization smoke detectors after they became sick of the nuisance alarms going off every time they cooked (City Limits).

“We know that the photoelectrics are better at alerting people to the fires that are killing more people. A lot of people die from smoke inhalation and not raging fires. The traditional smoke alarms go off frequently when people are cooking or showering and they disable them and forget to reconnect them,” argued former New York City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, a long-time advocate for photoelectric smoke detectors (City Limits).

Given the evidence stacked against ionization smoke detectors, it’s no surprise that substantial progress is being made in legally requiring the use of photoelectric smoke detectors. After the 2005 apartment fire in Barre, Vermont, the Barre Fire Department conducted a series of experiments testing both photoelectric and ionization detectors and found that some ionization detectors take longer than an hour to go off in the presence of smoldering flames (NBC News, “What You Need to Know About Smoke Alarms,” 11.18.2010). Soon afterwards, Vermont lawmakers passed a law that required all new homes to have photoelectric smoke detectors installed. In Massachusetts, new or renovated homes and apartments must install photoelectric smoke detectors instead of ionization detectors. Two cities in California, Albany and Palo Alto, have done the same as well.

“If we could wave a magic wand right now and get rid of all the ionization smoke alarms and replace them instantly with photoelectric smoke alarms, we would cut out fire deaths in this country by more than 50 percent,” stated Albany’s fire chief, Marc McGinn (NBC News).

So what type of smoke detectors does Vassar use? According to Vassar’s Director of Environmental, Health and Safety James Kelly, the campus utilizes a mix of both photoelectric detectors and ionization detectors. And indeed, the NFPA recommends both types to be used so that they can cover for each other’s weaknesses (NFPA, “Ionization vs Photoelectric,” 02.26.2014). Unfortunately, since all the smoke detectors are connected to a central fire alarm system, if one smoke detector goes off, the whole system goes off.

But is having both truly ideal? This topic is still hotly debated, but the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the world’s largest firefighter union, made its stance clear all the way back in 2008: All homes should ONLY use photoelectric smoke detectors (IAFF, “Official Position on Smoke Alarms,” 08.2008). Why? Because not only are the benefits of ionization detectors over photoelectric detectors considered “marginal,” but the high frequency of nuisance alarms caused by ionization detectors will also continue to encourage bad fire alarm habits like removing the batteries.

For now, it seems nothing much can be done about the smoke detectors at Vassar. After all, the safety of the students takes greater priority over their inconvenience. But if the college really does care about the community of Poughkeepsie, then the administration should take a more active role in not putting so much financial strain on the Arlington Fire Department. The firefighters there deserve that much, at the very least.

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