Fire Prevention Week: Sound the Alarm

Smoke alarms save lives…when they work

The sound of a smoke alarm can be a life saver! A smoke alarm gives early warning of smoke or fire danger but is useful only if it is in working condition.

Most people who die in fires die from the inhalation of smoke which has toxic gases, and not from burn injuries. Statistics also show most fire deaths happen during the night when people are sleeping. It is vital that smoke alarms can give us the warning we need to get out of our homes quickly in case of a fire.

A working smoke alarm means it has a power source, either battery or household electricity, and is able to detect smoke in the air and sound an alarm. When a smoke alarm goes off, it is your signal to get out of your home quickly. Because smoke alarms are designed to detect smoke very early, this gives you and your family precious seconds to escape from homes or buildings before the smoke and fire spread.

Choosing smoke alarms

When you shop for your smoke alarms, you will find ionization or photoelectric alarms. What do these terms mean? Which type is better?

An ionization smoke alarm is generally more responsive to smoke from flaming fires – like from a flaming pan fire. A photoelectric alarm is generally more responsive to smoke from smoldering fires – like from a cigarette igniting a slow burning fire on a sofa cushion.

Laboratory tests indicate that either type of alarm is equally effective in the home. Many household fires produce detectable amounts of both visible and invisible smoke. Either detector will provide suitable warning for a safe escape from a fire emergency.

Nevertheless, to cover all possibilities you may want to install one of each type of smoke alarm as recommended by the Office of the Fire Commissioner. Dual ionization/photoelectric alarms, which combine both technologies in one alarm, are also available.

Be sure that, whichever smoke alarms you buy, they have been tested and labeled by an independent testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (cUL) which means the product is certified for the Canadian market, and to the applicable Canadian standard.

Special Features

Many smoke alarm models now come equipped with enhanced features.

Escape Light: When the smoke alarm sounds, an escape light is also activated, helping you to exit the area.

Alarms with Strobe Lights: Some alarms come equipped with strobe lights to alert people who are deaf or hard of hearing. You can also choose tactile notification appliances, such as a pillow or bed shaker, which are activated by the sound of the smoke alarm.

Lithium Batteries and 10-Year Power Cells: Alarms that use these power sources can operate for up to 10 years without requiring a change of battery.

Combination Alarms: A smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm are in one unit. Make sure to note the difference between the sound of each alarm.

Remote-Controlled Testing Buttons: No need to climb up on a ladder—smoke alarms with this feature allow you to use most standard TV/VCR remote controls to test your smoke alarm.

Hush Buttons: This feature allows you to temporarily silence the smoke alarm in the event of a “nuisance” alarm, for example, from cooking fumes. Pressing the hush button automatically switches the alarm to a reduced sensitivity condition for a limited period of time. If a real fire occurs, and the quantity of smoke reaching the smoke alarm is sufficient, the alarm will sound.

Installing smoke alarms

To ensure your family will be alerted to any smoke or fire danger, follow the guidelines below when installing smoke alarms in your home.

  • Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, including the basement.
  • Install smoke alarms inside bedrooms.
  • Smoke alarms should be mounted high on walls or on ceilings by following the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Avoid installing smoke alarms near windows, doors or air ducts where drafts might interfere with their operation.

In larger or multi-story homes, the sound from a distant smoke alarm may be reduced to the point that it may not be loud enough to provide proper warning, especially for sleeping individuals. In these homes, interconnection of smoke alarms is highly recommended. This means that when one smoke alarm sounds, they all do. A licensed electrician can install hard-wired multiple-station alarms. Wireless alarms, which manufacturers have more recently begun producing, can be installed by the homeowner.

  • Maintaining your smoke alarms

Although the normal life span of a smoke alarm is 10 years, because they are electronic devices, they can become inactive at any time as they age over time. If the environment is dusty or if there are cobwebs, the openings in the smoke alarm can get clogged and this may prevent smoke entering and triggering the alarm.

  • Test smoke alarms monthly. First, press the test button. The alarm should sound within a few seconds. This will ensure the alarm is receiving power. Next, test your alarms with smoke. (Never use an open-flame to test the alarm as you could burn yourself or start a fire). Monthly testing is essential to make sure smoke alarms are in working condition. This is the only way to know.
  • If your alarms are battery operated, replace the batteries at least once each year or when the low battery chirping sound is emitted by the alarm.
  • If your smoke alarms are more than 10 years old, replace them with new ones.
  • Vacuum the outside of the smoke alarms to remove any cobwebs and dust.
  • Never paint a smoke alarm.

For more information on fire safety in Alberta, contact your municipality’s fire or emergency service or the Office of the Fire Commissioner at 1-800-421-6929, email or visit and select Public Education tab.