July 15, 2009

Smoke alarm inspections planned for every Erin home

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Erin fire department will be checking every home in town to make sure that smoke alarms are installed and working properly. If firefighters discover a problem, they plan to fix it on the spot.

The new inspection program was launched this month, a stepped-up effort to ensure that homeowners and landlords meet the minimum legal requirements: a working smoke alarm on every level of the home, and outside every sleeping area.

"If there are no smoke alarms, we will put them in for free," said Kevin Gallant, Chief Fire Prevention Officer for Erin Fire and Emergency Services.

It is going to take six years to cover the whole town, including rural properties that may never have been inspected before. A team of three firefighters will come to your home and ask if they can do an inspection. Two will come in, and one will stay with the fire truck.

The program is voluntary – you are not obliged to participate. If you let them in, they will check the placement and operation of the smoke alarms, and look for other fire safety hazards. They do not intend to charge people, but they do intend to deal with any issues right away.

"We're not going to leave a home unprotected," said Fire Chief Steve Goode. He is particularly concerned about safety in older farm houses.

Previously, the department was inspecting about 200 homes per year, in the urban areas. (The 2006 census reported 3,960 private dwellings in Erin.) This year, Town Council allocated $9,500 in the budget for increased inspections. The Fire Protection Act mandates the Town to have a smoke alarm program, but Erin is going beyond the minimum requirements with the current plan.

If you refuse to allow the firefighters to install smoke alarms, and you later have a fire without working detectors, you are likely to be prosecuted. The ticket carries a fine of $235 for each missing or non-working unit. Landlords can face penalties up to $25,000. The same protection is required in mobile homes, boats and cottages.

Smoke alarms became mandatory outside sleeping areas in 1998. The death rate from residential fires in Ontario declined about 24% from 1999 to 2008, according to the Fire Marshall's Office. About half the fatal fires were in homes without proper smoke alarm protection. About 17% of those had no smoke alarms and 28% had smoke alarms that did not work, usually because the battery was dead or missing.

Newer homes have the alarms wired to the power supply, and linked so they will all sound in an emergency. Ideally, they should have a battery back-up, in case of a power failure.

The law was changed in 2006 to require alarms on every level, not just outside sleeping areas. Despite intensive public education efforts, many people are not getting the message, so fire departments are resorting to charging those who do not make the effort to comply.

It is important to test your alarms once a month and change the batteries every year. Replace units that are more than ten years old. Never remove batteries if you are getting nuisance alarms – move the device farther away from cooking or wood stoves, or get ones that have a "hush" feature.

If anyone in the household sleeps with the bedroom door closed, there should be an alarm installed in the bedroom. Make sure everyone knows what to do if an alarm sounds – develop a home fire escape plan and practise it with everyone in the household.

Over 90 per cent of residential fires are preventable, but if they do occur, your opportunity to safely evacuate your family is often a matter of minutes, or even just seconds. Smoke alarms tip the odds in your favour, so don't wait for the firefighters, make sure you have the protection right now.