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Study: Free Smoke Alarms Don't Cut Fire Deaths

Finds they're often malfunctioning or disconnected

THURSDAY, Oct. 31, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Campaigns to provide free smoke alarms in housing projects don't reduce the number of fires or fire-related injuries, says a new study from London.

The researchers were trying to replicate the success of a similar program in Oklahoma City, which was credited with an 80 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths from fire injuries. This time, however, the giveaway didn't produce so great a benefit -- in fact it didn't appear to help at all.

Two years after handing out more than 20,000 smoke alarms, mounts and instructional brochures in several languages, people who received the detectors were no less likely to be seriously hurt or killed in fires. The fire department responded to just as many blazes in the housing complexes the program targeted.

The odds of having a detector installed were roughly the same for homes with free alarms as those that had to buy their own, 30 percent versus 32 percent; and the chances that the detector was working properly -- that is, had a good battery -- were nearly identical, 16 percent versus 17 percent.

Why the handout program didn't work isn't clear, say the researchers, who publish their findings in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal. Tenants may not have understood the installation instructions they were provided or may have lacked the right tools to put up the detector. Although the researchers distributed educational materials in foreign languages, even this didn't insure that the alarms would be properly placed and maintained.

"Simply giving alarms to poor, urban households is unlikely to reduce injuries related to fire," and thus may be a waste of resources, the scientists wrote.

In a second study also appearing this week in the journal, researchers found that nearly half of smoke alarms in a London neighborhood weren't working within 15 months of being installed. The main reasons: missing or disconnected batteries, often because of frustration over false alarms. About one in six people had removed the detectors.

Alarms using long-lasting lithium ion batteries were more than twice as likely as conventional models to be working when checked, as were those with an ionization sensor. However, households with a smoker were about 40 percent less likely than nonsmoking homes to have a functioning smoke detector.

Carol Runyan, director of the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says detector handouts aren't necessarily ineffective, but they're not a "one-size-fits-all" proposition. "There's a lot more to it than just getting smoke detectors into the hands of people in the household," Runyan says.

Dr. Barry Pless, an injury prevention specialist at Montreal's McGill University, calls the latest research "very important and sobering."

The detector handout "seemed like a no-brainer" when it began, says Pless, author of an editorial accompanying the journal articles. However, the reality proved that taking aim at fire is harder than it appears.

The failure of the British initiative leads to two conclusions, says Pless, editor of the international journal Injury Prevention. Either freebie smoke alarms need to run on household electricity, thereby short-circuiting the dead or disconnected battery problem, or housing projects should all be rigged with sprinkler systems to douse fires before they spread.

In the United States, 94 percent of homes have at least one smoke alarm. The 6 percent that don't account for half the fire-related deaths each year, according to the National Fire Prevention Association.

Margie Coloian, a spokeswoman for the Quincy, Mass. group, says smoke alarms are a major reason the number of fire-related deaths have been dropping since the late 1970s. Last year, 3,110 people died in residential fires, down more than 9 percent from 2000, Coloian says.

What To Do

A false alarm beats no alarm at all when a real fire hits in the middle of the night. Smoke detectors are incredibly inexpensive these days.

For more on fire prevention, try the National Fire Prevention Association. For a look at how smoke detectors function, try HowStuffWorks.

SOURCES: Margie Coloian, spokeswoman, National Fire Prevention Association, Quincy, Mass.; Carol Runyan, Ph.D., director, Injury Prevention Research Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Barry Pless, M.D., professor, pediatrics, epidemiology and biostatistics, McGill University, Montreal; Nov. 2, 2002, British Medical Journal
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