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Experts: Functioning Smoke Alarms Best Defense Against Fire

MOHEGAN LAKE, N.Y. – The Sullivan family fire in Carmel that claimed the life of a Larchmont police captain, his wife and teenage daughters last week is a tragic reminder to check homes for fire safety. Experts said operational smoke detectors, an escape plan and safe use of household appliances can minimize your chance of having a fire and reduce the risks of injuries should one occur.

“Smoke alarms are the big issue, the number one point," said Guy Swartout, deputy chief of the inspection and investigation branch of New York State’s Office of Fire Prevention and Control. "Most people that die in fires die from smoke inhalation and poison gas," he said, “Not from flame impingement or being affected by the heat.”

The types of materials used to build and furnish homes have changed the nature of fire preparedness. Fire experts used to say a fire developed in a residential setting by doubling every one minute. Now, residential fires double every 30 seconds because of synthetic materials used in home building, wall covering, carpeting and upholstery.

These synthetic materials cause thick, black smoke and low visibility. Pair that with the fact that 52 percent of fire deaths occur between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., according to the National Fire Prorecrion Association, practicing an escape plan at night becomes especially prudent.

Experts from Consumer Reports said brand loyalty isn’t important when it comes to smoke detectors, but buying dual censor units and installing them according to manufacturer’s instructions is.

John Galeotafiore, assistant director of home improvement for Consumer Reports , said dual censor models are less common and more expensive than smoke alarms which may be installed in a new home by a builder. They combine the features of a photo-electric smoke detector, which senses a smoky fire, and the more common ionization smoke detector, which senses a fast-flaming fire.

If smoke detectors are not hard-wired in your home, make sure to change the batteries at least once year and test smoke detectors once a month. If smoke detectors are hard-wired, make sure there is a battery backup, experts said, because a fire can knock out a home’s electricity.

Look for smoke detectors that include a test button and a hush button, experts said. Tamper-proof alarms don't need replacement batteries, like common detectors, and have batteries which last up to 10 years. Regardless of what type of smoke alarm you have in your home, Galeotafiore said they should be replaced every seven to 10 years.

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