Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service

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Smoke alarms


Facts about smoke alarms and smoke alarm ownership

The Home Office draws upon four main sources for its statistical information:

  • Statistical returns from fire services (Home Office Statistical Bulletin)
  • The British Crime Survey (BCS)
  • Pre- and Post-Community Fire Safety (CFS) campaign research
  • The Attitude and Behaviour Monitor (research carried out for NCFSC).

From 1988 we have seen a steep increase in the percentage of households owning smoke alarms (8% in 1988). More recently, a survey for the Home Office in 1997 indicated that ownership was 79%, and the 1999 Attitude and Behaviour Monitor recently put that figure at 81%. Follow-up research is being carried out among the non-owners from this survey.

It should be noted that Home Office statistics based on returns from fire services report on those fires attended by them as an emergency. Any fires involving detectors where no emergency call was made to the service will not be recorded. Therefore figures reported may understate the effectiveness of fire alarms as it is unlikely that the fire services will be called if the detector is working correctly and an early-warning signal is given.

This information indicates an interesting number of points:

  • Of all dwelling fires (including malicious) attended by services, 13% were first discovered by a smoke alarm. This figure has increased from 5,000 in 1993 to 9,300 in 1998;
  • Those without a smoke alarm (which discovered the fire) are four times more likely to die in a fire than those who own alarms;
  • Where a fire was discovered by a smoke alarm there was less damage and a higher percentage (70%) of fires had been discovered in less than five minutes. (Where smoke alarms did not discover a fire only around half were discovered in under five minutes.)

The apparently high level of smoke alarm ownership compared to 1988 disguises the fact that many of these alarms may not be working. In 1998 Home Office statistics show that in 28% of fires where an alarm was present, the alarm failed to operate. More than half these failures are due to missing or flat batteries.

Other sources indicate that in a third of cases where the alarm failed, the batteries had been removed because the alarm "kept going off", indicating that they were located too close to the kitchen, but for many the battery had simply run out (37% of those surveyed). There is little evidence from research to support the claim that batteries were removed for use in another application; in fact technicians advise that the type of battery used in smoke alarms (the PP3) is not used in many other applications these days. The main exception to this is the wireless burglar alarm, which is commonly available.

There are currently no national figures for ownership by ethnic grouping, although research has been done by some services. Research does indicate that ownership seems to be lowest among older people (55+), the group found to be most at risk from injury by fire. Attitudinal responses were generally cited for non-ownership, e.g., "it will never happen to me because I don't smoke/don't have children", etc.

The 2000 British Crime Survey (to report in January 2001) will give valuable information to services on ownership across socio-economic groupings. Existing information indicates that those at highest risk from fire are in multi-ethnic, low income group areas, followed by areas of predominantly council estates with the worst hardship. This information will allow more accurate evaluation and targeting of future campaign activity.

Figure 1 Fires in dwellings showing whether a smoke detector was present and operation of alarm, 1998 United Kingdom
Figure 1 Fires in dwellings showing whether a smoke detector was present and operation of alarm, 1998 United Kingdom

Table 1 Fires and casualties from fires in dwellings by presence and operation of smoke detectors, 1994-98 United Kingdom

Presence and operation of automatic alarm system
  Present, operated and raised the alarm Present, operated, but did not raise the alarm Present, but did not operate Absent Unspecified Total
Fires2
1994
11,079
2,051
3,731
49,401
-
66,262
1995
11,625
1,907
4,099
49,165
1,580
68,376
1996
12,860
2,240
5,333
50,982
-
71,415
1997
13,704
2,526
5,814
50,275
-
72,318
1998
14,823
2,356
6,800
46,723
5
70,708
Fatal Casualties
1994
47
34
42
354
-
477
1995
58
28
71
379
13
549
1996
57
26
81
392
-
556
1997
45
27
84
398
-
554
1998
48
28
80
341
-
497
Non Fatal Casualties
1994
2,129
455
1,113
9,155
-
12,852
1995
2,205
473
1,185
9,159
42
13,064
1996
2,482
553
1,654
9,468
-
14,157
1997
2,835
573
1,830
9,624
-
14,862
1998
2,840
521
2,162
9,406
-
14,929
  1. Including 'late' call and heat and smoke damage only incidents.
  2. Figures are based on sample data weighted to the service totals.
  3. The fatality figures for 1998 are likely to be revised downwards, as later information becomes available.
    p=provisional

Figure 2 Dwelling fires where smoke alarm failed to operate by reason, 1998 United Kingdom

Figure 2 Dwelling fires where smoke alarm failed to operate by reason, 1998 United Kingdom

Table 2 Fires in dwellings with a smoke detector where alarm did not operate by reason, 1994-98 United Kingdom

Reason 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998
Missing battery 1,698 1,786 2,281 2,545 2,985
Battery failure/flat 381 442 532 597 613
Other act preventing alarm from operating incl. turned off 498 551 756 860 883
Fire products did not reach detector(s) 469 685 1,008 975 1,336
Poor siting of detector(s) 223 142 138 186 226
Faulty system incl. incorrectly installed 178 190 219 321 288
Insufficient detectors 34 14 10 5 1
Other reason (not act or omission) 119 124 148 37 80
System apparently operational after fire 14 6 25 26 21
Other including not known, e.g. where system too badly damaged 116 159 217 261 367
Total 3,731 4,099 5,333 5,814 6,800
1 Figures are based on sample data weighted to the Fire service totals. They include 'late' call and heat and smoke damage only incidents.
p=provisional
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