Sound the alarms!
What you need to know about smoke and CO detectors

Sarah Holland
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 15/00) - Did you know that more people die from breathing smoke than from burns in a fire?

When something is burning, deadly gases and smoke tend to spread farther and faster than heat from flames. And when people are asleep, deadly fumes can send them into deeper unconsciousness.

Being warned of a fire early can mean the difference between safely escaping and not escaping at all. The solution to this is, of course, smoke detectors. Too many people take smoke detectors for granted, not taking the time to realize the importance of their life-saving function.

While smoke alarms do help save people, they also have limitations that you should be aware of in order to protect your family as thoroughly as possible.

Smoke alarms don't function without power. Sounds too obvious, right? Well, when's the last time you tested yours and checked the power supply/battery? Hopefully, some of you answered "recently."

Detectors can't sound an alarm until smoke actually reaches the sensing chamber. In other words, anything preventing the smoke from reaching the detector will delay the alarm -- if the fire is in the walls, roof or chimney, a closed door holding in smoke, a fire on another floor of your home.

Not everyone may hear smoke alarms. Why not? The piercing sound may be muffled by distance, closed doors, a stereo or traffic. Someone who is hard of hearing may also be in danger. A smoke alarm should therefore be installed in every room, or at least on every floor, of your home.

Remember, smoke alarms are not fool-proof, and they do have limited lives. Be sure to test and clean your alarm regularly. Consult the fire department to find out if your alarm needs replacing.

Beyond the shrieking alarms

Fire safety in your home includes more than smoke alarms. Being smart and having an evacuation plan are also important.

For years, fire safety professionals have been lecturing on the importance of being safe and having an escape plan. The same is still true today, but many people don't listen or act.

How many times have you heard people say to keep matches and lighters away from children? OK, now, how many times have you heard news reports stating the cause of a fire to be children playing with matches? Some people still aren't listening.

Here are some safety tips to help protect you and your family: never smoke in bed; do not overload electrical circuits; store flammable materials in appropriate containers; do not stand too close to the alarm when it is going off as the horn could damage your hearing.

When it comes to your family's escape plan, there are a number of things to remember. Be sure your family is familiar with the plan, and practise it often. If a fire was to break out in your home, panic may quickly take over, but practice will help this.

There should be two ways to exit each room -- make sure you can escape without opening the door. Don't forget to decide on a meeting place that is a safe distance from your home.

When placing smoke alarms around your house, do not place them in turbulent air areas such as near fans, doors or windows -- air movement may prevent combustion particles from entering the alarm (these are the particles that set off the alarm); in dead-air spaces such as at the peak of an A-frame ceiling, because non-circulating air at the top may prevent smoke from being detected early; in very hot or cold areas where the temperature exceeds 38 C or is below 50 C.

Also be careful about placing smoke alarms in areas where the air is quite humid (bathrooms and attics), in poorly ventilated areas, and in dusty/dirty areas. Remember to never paint your smoke alarm.

Carbon monoxide dangers

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas that is poisonous and potentially lethal.

CO, a by-product of incomplete combustion, is produced when flammable fuels such as natural gas, propane gas, heating oil, kerosene, coal, charcoal, gasoline or wood burn with insufficient oxygen.

When we inhale air containing carbon monoxide, it is absorbed through the bloodstream, where it displaces oxygen and bonds with the hemoglobin in your blood.

Basically, the CO takes the place of the oxygen in your blood and without oxygen, vital organs, your heart and brain are deprived and begin to deteriorate.

Essentially, you suffocate from the inside. To compensate for this, your heart rate increases, breathing may become laboured, and, in the most serious cases, the results can be cardiac trauma, brain damage, coma or even death.

Unfortunately, CO poisoning can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to those of a flu virus or a cold. Some of the early warning signs of CO poisoning are: fatigue, nausea, dizziness and a headache. If the exposure to CO continues, the symptoms often become worse and can include vomiting, mental confusion, severe headaches, vision and hearing problems and even unconsciousness.

Potential sources of carbon monoxide in your home include a clogged chimney, wood stove, wood and gas fireplaces, automobiles and garages, gas water heater, gas appliances, gas or kerosene heaters, gas or oil furnaces, and cigarette smoke.

Both old and new homes are at risk for CO problems. Older homes because they may have malfunctioning appliances and poor ventilation; new homes because they may be too well-sealed, not letting in enough oxygen. When this occurs, appliances may compete for the oxygen and cause a "backdraft" which pulls CO-polluted air back into your home.

Carbon monoxide detectors are easily installed, and local fire department personnel will even come to your home, free of charge, to test the unit.

Statistics show that every year 1,700 people die from accidental CO poisoning in North America. Over 10,000 more are treated or hospitalized annually. CO is the number 1 source of all accidental poisoning deaths.

That sounds like a good enough reason to install that detector today.