"Our aim must be to ensure that every home has
Mike O'Brien, Home Office Minister for fire matters, March 2000
(See Fire Service Circular 3/2000 for full text
of the Local Government Association (LGA) Conference
Working smoke alarms are a vital protection from the dangers
of fire in the home. They provide the early warning and precious
time which can save lives and prevent injury.
The smoke alarm message, and in many cases, the installation
of smoke alarms themselves, are among the most important community
fire safety priorities for brigades.
The aim of having working smoke alarms in every home is also
a high government priority. In May 2000, a ministerial initiative
resulted in the formation of a joint fire and insurance industry/Home
Office working group to take forward the strategy for achieving
this widespread ownership and protection.
The National Community Fire Safety Centre (NCFSC) Fire Action
Plan campaign in September 2000 is part of a long-term initiative
which will heighten awareness of the importance of smoke alarms,
bringing together campaigns and information, industry support,
research, and the practical experience and expertise of fire
services working in the community.
The types of smoke alarm
here are two main types of smoke alarm currently available - ionisation
and optical. There are strengths and weaknesses of both types.
Ionisation: These are the cheapest type available,
they are very sensitive to small particles of smoke produced
by flaming fires and will detect this type of fire before the
smoke gets too thick. They are, however, a little less effective
where there is a slow burning or smouldering fire, which gives
off larger quantities of smoke before flaming occurs.
Optical: These are more expensive but are more
effective at detecting the larger particles of smoke produced
by slow burning fires such as smouldering foam-filled furniture.
Obviously cost and effectiveness of operation are key issues
when promoting the installation and use of smoke alarms.
The following hierarchy of smoke alarms is set out in ascending
order of cost and functionality
1. Ionisation alarm fitted with a one-year battery, which requires
changing each year. This type is ideally suited for the target
group that has the ability, both physical and financial, and
the motivation, to change the battery.
2. Ionisation alarm fitted with a one-year battery and has a
hush button. This has the same pros and cons as 1 above, but
may help to eliminate the removal of the battery following nuisance
3. Optical alarm fitted with a one-year battery. The problems
relating to battery replacement remain with this option. Nuisance
alarms may be expected to be similar to 2.
4. Ionisation or optical alarms as in 2 and 3 above, but with
the alarms fitted with lithium batteries with a ten-year life.
This option is more suitable where the likelihood of battery
replacement is not high, such as with elderly people, those of
low socio-economic groups and those in social housing. It is
important that there is awareness of the need to replace the
unit at the appropriate time.
5. Mains powered smoke alarms with battery back-up. These are
ideal for high-risk groups and for social housing projects for
the elderly and infirm. Such alarms should be installed so as
to comply with BS 7671 and the installation should only be carried
out by qualified and competent electricians, i.e. members of
the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA) or the National
Inspection Council for Electrical Installation (NICEIC) registered
6. Mains only powered smoke alarms. Such units are available
but are not generally considered to be an improvement on the
lithium-battery-powered alarms referred to in 4 above. Further
information is available in BS 5839 : Part 6, paragraphs 5.1
Purchase and do-it-yourself installation of battery-powered
alarms by members of the public are heavily dependent upon the
quality of the instructions provided with the units.
As part of the work following the ministerial smoke alarm initiative,
the NCFSC will be revising the Home Office smoke alarm leaflet
(Wake up! Get a smoke alarm) to ensure that the information is
presented as clearly as possible.
Where to fit smoke alarms
Smoke alarms are simply screwed into the ceiling and should
be fitted at least 30 centimetres (12 inches) away from
any wall or light fitting and as close to the centre of
the room, hallway or landing ceiling as possible. (Always
read the manufacturers' instructions before fitting).
If your home is on one level, for minimum protection you
should fit an alarm in the hallway between
the living and sleeping areas.
If your home has more than one floor, for minimum protection
one alarm should be fitted at the bottom of the
staircase with further alarms fitted on
each stair landing.
If you choose to fit a single alarm in a home with more
than one level, care should be taken to ensure that it
is fitted where it can be heard throughout your
home - particularly when you are asleep. Normally
this would be at the top of the stairs. Although ionisation
and optical alarms are equally effective, optical alarms
may be preferred in this particular situation as they are
especially good at detecting slow-burning or smouldering
Important: The manufacturers' instructions should
be followed at all times, particularly where mains powered
alarms are to be installed.