Smoke Alarm Confusion


Have you ever wandered into a store looking for smoke alarms and wondered how the average person would make any sense of the display in front of him? Does it appear confusing to you and, if so, how would that come across to people who don’t earn their living in our line of work?

When consumers are confused, price point seems to be the most important factor in decision making. In other words, all other factors being equal, we tend to purchase the least expensive version of what it is we’re looking for.

So, imagine yourself in the aisle of the store, looking at a large display of smoke alarms, and then start asking questions like the following:

  • What is an ionization alarm?
  • How is it different from a photoelectric alarm?
  • Do I understand the difference between a fast-moving and a slow-smoldering fire?
  • Do I know which alarm works better on each kind of fire?
  • Do I know if a regular alkaline battery is okay or I need something that lasts longer?
  • Do I know where to put one up in my home?
  • Do I know how to make sure it is working properly?

I figure if people are replacing an existing alarm, they are looking for whatever type they had before (so some of the questions are already answered), particularly if it is a hardwired smoke alarm. But it leaves a lot of room for consumer confusion when there are so many choices.

I like what one smoke alarm manufacturer did in terms of labeling because it lists the type of alarms they have for the area they are designed to be used. Intuitively, it would help consumers decide which type of alarm they would need for what room, and it would seemingly reduce consumer confusion.

Performance Information

To add to our understanding of the issue, in 2015-2016 Everett Baker, Tyler Bennett, Jimmy Mosteller, and John Williams, students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, conducted their interactive qualifying project (IQP) to examine the benefits of performance information for smoke alarms for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The report they produced was presented at a national conference last year and dealt with consumer attitudes toward smoke alarm performance features and packaging.1 There were a number of very important findings in the study that could help us understand and ameliorate consumer confusion about smoke alarms.

First, it stipulates that smoke alarms are “low involvement products.” Intuitively, we understand that smoke alarms are not important to people on an everyday basis. But by the report’s definition of the term, they are low involvement products because they don’t cost too much, they don’t affect the lifestyle of the people purchasing them, and therefore they don’t command too much time in making purchasing decisions.

So now we’re (figuratively) facing the wall of smoke alarms in front of us and thinking (though not very much) about what kind we need. Not surprisingly, in the study’s results, when all other features about a smoke alarm were similar, the least expensive units were selected 93.2 percent of the time. However, when packaging was changed to reflect a rating scale about performance, 83.3 percent of respondents selected the smoke alarm that was priced much higher than a lower performance rated alarm.

Lack of Understanding

There were a number of other issues looked at in the study, and generally respondents indicated that they did the following:

  • Cared about detection time but do not think about it when purchasing.
  • Wanted information on performance and will use it when given.
  • Understood flaming and smoldering fires but had more difficulty with nuisance resistance.
  • Were unaware that smoke alarms perform differently to different fires.
  • Experienced frequent nuisance alarms.
  • Have a smoke alarm but less than half have purchased a smoke alarm.

It is an important topic to understand. According to United States Fire Administration and National Fire Protection Association data, two-thirds of the people who die in home fires do so in places where smoke alarms are either not present or not operating. We know that nuisance alarms contribute to disabling of alarms but not really to what extent.

With so many choices to be made, one fire protection professional I know recommended a matrix that would explain the concepts of good, better, and best for consumers where smoke alarms were concerned. As far as I know, the idea did not catch on, which is too bad, but I do understand that the amount of work needed to come to consensus on what criteria would be used to label a smoke alarm as good vs. best would be daunting. That process is beyond us at present until more research funding is made available to study smoke alarms in greater depth.

Educating Consumers

So, to what extent do we have a role in this issue? It is in educating consumers about the right choices they should make when purchasing a smoke alarm. The fire service has its work cut out for it, and I would recommend you have someone in your department who understands the issues and what to recommend beyond what the national standards have to say about smoke alarm type and placement. Or, perhaps a group of you team up and gain that expertise. Because not everyone is paying enough attention to this important issue.

For more information, see Consumer Product Safety Commission, Smoke Alarms-Why, Where, and Which? CPSC Pub.559,


1. SUPDET 2016, March 1-4, 2016, San Antonio, Texas.

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