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New smoke detector requirements aim to save lives in Illinois

p21 smoke detector lawBy DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    Residential owners have four more years to comply with a new Illinois law that requires upgraded smoke detectors in homes.
    But the sooner people do act, the sooner they can potentially save money — and lives.
    Fire officials are raising awareness of a new law, Public Act 100-0200, which will require smoke detectors with a 10-year sealed battery to be installed in all dwellings built before 1988 or those that do not already have hardwired smoke detectors.
    As of mid-September, 90 people have died in Illinois fires this year, compared to last year when there were 114, State Rep. Kathie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, said.
    “Preventing any and all of those is what this law is attempting to accomplish,” she said.
    The majority of the deaths are occurring in homes without working smoke detectors.
    The law is an amendment to a law passed in 1988, the Illinois Smoke Detector Act, which mandated that all Illinois dwellings needed to have detectors.
    “The reason we needed to amend this is, more than 70 percent of residential fire deaths had smoke detectors but they weren’t working. Either the batteries were out or they were past their prime,” said Margaret Vaughn, Illinois Firefighters Association/Fire Safety Alliance government affairs director.
    The “old-school smoke detector” – the ones requiring changeable  batteries — only have a 10-year shelf life — and can’t always be trusted to work properly.
    “Even if you’ve changed the batteries, and even if it works in a test, the alarm might work but the sensor mechanism collects dust over the years and there is no guarantee it’s going to work,” Vaughn said.
    It’s simpler to buy the 10-year model and not have to worry about it for 10 years.
    “A little voice will come on and tell you it’s time to replace it,” she said.
    The sealed models price for about $15 and can be purchased at most major retailers and on line. Since you wouldn’t be buying batteries every year, the cost is ultimately cheaper, Vaughn said.
    A 9-volt battery costs about $5, which would be $40 to $60 over the 10-year life.
    Edwardsville Fire Chief Rick Welle said firefighting technology has changed greatly, “so why have we not caught up with things like smoke detectors? Back when I started (1981) when you had a house fire you probably had a good 15 minutes because of the slow burn and the types of material. You didn’t have synthetic carpeting, which puts out toxic fumes much faster. Fast forward to to today and you’ve got no more than five minutes from the time an active fire breaks out to be able to escape from your home.”
    Welle remembers the fire in 2012 that killed two Southern Illinois University Edwardsville coeds who died in an off-campus fire with no working smoke detectors.
    “I would like to think that never happens again. At least that’s our goal,” Welle said.
    James Whiteford, deputy chief of the department, said the city has had a smoke detector assistance program for more than 20 years. Firemen can assist residents in placement and replacement of their smoke detectors.
    “We’re happy to install them where it’s appropriate,” he said.
    Through the years, different organizations have donated units that the Edwardsville Fire Department could give out free, he said.
    At SIUE, all detectors in student housing are hard-wired into electric circuits and monitored by the Police Department, Housing Director Mike Schultz said.
    However, Schultz adds a caveat.
    “Smoke detectors are only as good as the ability for them to sense that smoke,“ he said. “What we’re seeing is students using smoke detectors for hat racks and coats and other (improper) uses. If we find those, we’re taking them to the law and prosecuting them. Their putting other students’ lives at risk.”
    A fire education video resulted when the victims’ families came together after the tragic 2012 fire, Schultz said. It has been distributed to more than 200 universities.
    Illinois Fire Safety Alliance Executive Director Phil Zaleski says the new model detector has a hush feature that allows it to be muted for short periods, say, when someone is cooking dinner, a frequent trigger for an alarm.
    Kitchens are “where we see a lot of batteries taken out,” Zaleski said.
    The law requires that there be a minimum of one smoke detector in each sleeping area and a minimum of one unit on each floor.

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