'GMA' Investigates: Will Your Smoke Detector Respond Fast Enough?

"GMA" Investigates conducted two demonstrations showing response times of smoke alarms in very real fire scenarios.

When people buy smoke alarms, they may not know that there are two types on the market: the ionization alarm, which is generally faster to detect blazing fires, and photoelectric, which is generally quicker to detect smoldering fires. Ninety percent of homes have only ionization alarms, and they may not be providing all the protection people need.

Doug Turnbull believes he paid the ultimate price when he trusted ionization alarms. Turnbull lost his daughter, Julie, who was a senior at Miami University of Ohio, in a 2005 house fire. Eleven students were sleeping when a smoldering fire broke out. Eight survived.

"There were 17 ionization smoke detectors in the house. So it's not like the landlord didn't care about fire safety … but he just had no idea that there was a difference," Turnbull said.

"GMA" Investigates asked the Northeastern Ohio Fire Prevention Association to conduct a demonstration. Six new alarms from two leading manufacturers were bought for the demonstration. Two alarms were ionization, two were photoelectric and two were combination alarms that use both technologies.

The alarms were mounted in a hallway of a Mayfield Village, Ohio, house that was slated for demolition, and nine cameras were placed to capture all angles. Two firefighters were inside the house.

The first was a contained, fast, blazing fire. The ionization alarms went off after just 45 seconds. One of the photoelectric alarms went off after four minutes, and the other went off after five minutes.

It was very different in the smoldering fire.

"GMA" Investigates started its timer at the first sign of smoke. The first alarm to sound was the photoelectric alarm, and it went off at 12 minutes and 15 seconds after the first sign of smoke.

Ninety seconds after that, another photoelectric alarm sounded. At this point, the firefighters said visibility was still good.

At 22 minutes and 49 minutes, the dual alarms went off, but the ionization alarms had yet to sound.

At that point, visibility was minimal and conditions were life-threatening.

After one hour and 10 minutes, the fire chief deemed the house unsafe for firefighters and aborted the demonstration.

A 2004 government study found similar results. Photoelectric alarms sounded 30 minutes earlier than ionization ones in a smoldering fire. It also found that ionization detectors sometimes failed to sound their alarms at all.

Kidde and First Alert, two of the biggest alarm manufacturers, told "GMA" Investigates that their alarms meet industry standards but for optimal protection they recommend that consumers use both types of alarms.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said it was "actively working" to improve the safety standard so both alarms work faster and better in both types of fires.

Full Statements From Industry Groups

Statement from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

Working smoke alarms save lives. With more than 360,00 fires, 2,200 deaths, and $6.5 billion in property loss occurring in American homes each year, smoke alarms add an important layer of safety. In the last five years, CPSC has worked with UL, NFPA, and the fire service community to: require low frequency smoke alarms for the hearing impaired, establish distance requirements for smoke alarms near or in the kitchen to reduce nuisance alarming, and improve coverage for larger homes. We also motivated manufacturers to develop wireless interconnected smoke alarms. By taking advantage of technology improvements, we can enhance fire safety in existing homes.

The fire safety community recognizes that ionization and photoelectric alarms perform differently in smoldering and flaming fires. We are actively working with UL to improve their smoke alarm safety standard so that both alarms perform faster and better in both types of fires. There is important work being done to achieve the goal of having smarter and faster-detecting ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms that respond to many types of fires.

CPSC staff also actively participates in the development process of the building code that is most commonly used for smoke alarm installation requirements, NFPA 72, to help ensure that optimal fire safety protection is being provided to the public.

CPSC recommends that consumers install both ionization and photoelectric alarms. Alarms should be placed on each floor of the home, in bedrooms, and the batteries should be changed during Daylight Saving Time.

Statement from Underwriters Laboratories (UL)

Smoke alarms have helped reduce the number of fire deaths by almost 50 percent but are only a part of the fire safety equation. It's important that smoke alarms be checked monthly, located properly and replaced as directed by the manufacturer. UL standards are science driven, dynamic and involve a consensus process, which includes government officials, safety advocates, manufacturers, consumers, other experts and UL engineers. Fire safety agencies recommend the use of both photoelectric and ionization technologies for optimum protection.

Statement from First Alert

Fire experts from the National Fire Protection Association, the National Institute of Standards, Underwriters Laboratories, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission - based on extensive testing - have concluded that either photoelectric or ionization technology provides adequate escape time in most fires. Because different technologies are more sensitive to different types of smoke particles, for maximum protection, First Alert and fire expert recommend that you use both photoelectric and ionization smoke alarms. We recognize that some consumers cannot afford separate alarms of the cost of dual alarms. In that event, either technology provides adequate time to escape in most fires. First Alert products are subject to rigorous internal testing on a frequent basis. We also meet or exceed standards set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/Underwriters Laboratories. The ANSI/UL's standards result from stringent, independent testing and input from various interest parties, including fire services and governmental agencies. That testing - and the resulting standards - are what consumers should look to in judging product quality. First Alert, along with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and fires services around the country, strongly recommend the following:

- Every home should have a smoke alarm on every level of the home and in every bedroom to provide the earliest possible warning.

- Batteries in smoke alarms should be checked every month and replaced at (least) every six months.

- Smoke alarms should be replaced entirely at least every ten years.

- Keep fire extinguishers in the kitchen and other locations throughout the home.

- Every family should have an escape plan and practice it once a year.

If your alarm sounds, leave the residence immediately. Do not re-enter until fire officials say it is safe.

Statement from Kidde

Kidde's mission is to develop solutions that protect people and property from the effects of fire and its related hazards. As part of that commitment, we continuously work with members of the media and the fire service to raise awareness about the simple steps families can take to stay safe from home fires. We have included a link to information about alarm technology and other educational information.

Click HERE for the information from Kidde.

Click HERE for more from the NFPA on smoke alarms.