Smoke alarms and fire emergency equipment

You are more than twice as likely to die in a fire at home if you haven't got a smoke alarm. A smoke alarm is the easiest way to alert you to the danger of fire. Smoke alarms are cheap, widely available and easy to fit.

Number of smoke alarms you need

The more alarms you have, the safer you'll be. At minimum you should have one on each floor. However, if you have only one alarm and two floors, put the alarm where you’ll be able to hear it when you're asleep. If you have a television or other large electrical appliance, such as a computer, in any of the bedrooms, you should fit a smoke alarm there too.

Choosing a smoke alarm

There are two types of smoke alarm - ionisation and optical - costing between £5.00 to £10.00.

Ionisation alarms are the cheapest and most readily available. They are very sensitive to flaming fires - ones that burn fiercely such as chip-pan fires - and they will detect this type of fire before smoke becomes very thick.

Optical alarms are more expensive and more effective at detecting slow-burning fires, such as smouldering foam-filled furniture or overheated wiring. They are less likely to go off accidentally and so are best for ground-floor hallways and for homes on one level.

For the best protection, you should install one of each. An optical alarm should generally be fitted in the hallway near the kitchen and an ionisation alarm should be fitted at first floor level. However, if you can’t have both, it’s still safer to have either one, rather than none at all.

Which ever model you choose, you should make sure that it meets British Standard 5446, Part 1 (BS 5446-1) and ideally also carries the British Standard Kitemark. Ask the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service for advice about which alarm is best for your circumstances.

The different models available

A lot of people forget to check their smoke alarms so the best choice of power source is usually the one that lasts longest.

Standard battery alarms

An ionisation battery alarm is the cheapest and most basic smoke alarm available. An optical battery alarm is slightly more expensive. Both require nine-volt batteries.

Battery alarms with an emergency light

A battery alarm has an emergency light which comes on when the alarm is triggered. These alarms are particularly suitable if someone in your house has difficulty with hearing.

Alarms with ten year batteries

These are slightly more expensive but you save on the cost of replacing batteries. They are available as ionisation or optical alarms and are fitted with a long-life lithium battery or a sealed power pack that lasts for 10 years.

Models with a ‘hush’ or ‘silence’ button

Some models are available with a 'hush' button which will silence the alarm for a short time. This can be used when cooking, for example. If there is a real fire, giving off lots of smoke, the hush system is overridden and the alarm sounds. These models will continue to remind you they have been silenced by 'chirping' or displaying a red light.

Mains-powered alarms

These are powered by your home’s mains electricity and need to be installed by qualified electricians. There’s no battery to check, although they are available with battery back-up in case of a power cut.

Interconnecting or linked alarms

Some alarms can be connected to each other so that when one senses smoke, all the alarms in the property sound. Interconnected alarms are useful for people with difficulty hearing and also in larger homes.

Mains-powered alarm with strobe light and vibrating pad

These are designed for people who are deaf or have hearing difficulties. If there’s a fire, the alarm alerts you with a flashing light and vibrating pad (which is placed beneath your pillow).

Mains-powered alarm which plugs into a light socket

This type of alarm uses a rechargeable battery that charges when the light is switched on. It lasts for ten years and can be silenced or tested by the light switch.

Installing your smoke alarm

Installing a smoke alarm only takes a few minutes - just follow the manufacturer's instructions. The best place is on the ceiling, near or at the middle of the room or hall. The alarm should be at least 30cm (one foot) away from a wall or light.

If it's difficult for you to fit an alarm, ask someone to help you, or contact your local Fire and Rescue Service.

Maintaining your smoke alarm

To keep your smoke alarm in good working order, you should:

  • test it once a week, by pressing the test button, until the alarm sounds
  • change the battery once a year (unless it’s a ten year alarm)
  • once a year clean dust from the detector - a quick vacuum with the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner does this very effectively
  • replace the whole unit every ten years

Fire extinguishers

There are four main types of fire extinguisher:

  • powder
  • water
  • foam
  • CO2, for electrical fires

No single type of extinguisher is totally effective on all fires. Before buying one, look carefully at the types of fire it can be used on. Multi-purpose dry powder extinguishers or Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) extinguishers are usually the best choices for home use. They are effective on many types of fire.

Tips for safely using any fire extinguisher:

  • read the instructions
  • buy one you can carry easily
  • it is best placed in the hall and taken where needed
  • don’t put it near a heater or fire but fix it to the wall, so that it is out of children's reach but easily accessible by others
  • get it serviced once a year or as often as the manufacturer recommends
  • when using the extinguisher on a fire, keep yourself on the escape route side of the blaze

Fire blankets

These are fire-resistant sheets of material you can use to cover a fire to cut its source of oxygen. You can also wrap around a person whose clothes are on fire.

Fire blankets are quick to use, easy to maintain and cheaper than fire extinguishers. However, to use them, you need to get close to the fire, meaning your hands will be at risk of burning. You can also only use on small and contained fires, like chip pan fires on the cooker. In addition, it is likely that you will only get one go at putting out the fire. If you don’t put it out, you won’t be able to retrieve the blanket.

They're ideal to keep in the kitchen, but they are not good for general use. If you get one, you should make sure it conforms to British Standard BS 6575 and bear these points in mind:

  • it should be easy to find in an emergency
  • never put it away in a cupboard
  • it shouldn't be mounted above a cooker or heater
  • a fire blanket is most useful in the kitchen

Sprinklers

If you want to reduce the risk of death in a fire as much as possible, you could consider fitting sprinklers in your home. They provide a high level of protection from the risk of dying in a fire. They are particularly suitable for older people and for those with difficulty moving or have some other disability. In parts of the USA where residents are required to have sprinklers, almost no one dies from fire at home.

If you’re considering getting a sprinkler system fitted, there are some points to remember:

  • sprinklers are fitted in as many rooms as you want them to be - pipes are small and run off mains water
  • they are individually heat-activated so the whole system doesn't go off at once
  • they rarely get set off accidentally as they need high temperatures to trigger them
  • they operate automatically, whether you're at home or not
  • if you have a sprinkler system, you should also have a smoke alarm, as this will alert you to slow-burning, smoke-generating fires which may not generate enough heat to trigger the sprinkler
  • sprinklers also sound an alarm when they go off so they alert you as well as tackling the fire

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