Smoke alarms are one of the most basic and inexpensive lifesaving devices in any home, but they often are the items most ignored or forgotten.
Statistics show a third or more homes, when checked by fire officials in the region, are without working smoke alarms. Fires in recent weeks and months in the Rogue Valley, however, show smoke alarms truly can save lives.
Smoke alarms are sold in two styles: ionization and photoelectric.
More common ionization smoke alarms detect charges in air particles; photoelectric alarms detect light changes when smoke is present.
Medford Fire Marshal Greg Kleinberg says both types are effective.
Additional alarms to consider include voice-recorded units, to which family members record messages that can prove more effective at waking sleeping children, the elderly or sound sleepers.
Some smoke alarms available in stores include a carbon monoxide detector for added protection.
Specialty alarms for hearing-impaired individuals contain strobes or vibrating sensors.
A house fire on Medford's Hamilton Street in mid-February sounded a smoke alarm in the middle of the night, alerting a sleeping resident who escaped just seconds before an explosion rocked the room where she had been sleeping.
A few weeks later, a fire on Brookdale Avenue was discovered when a smoke alarm alerted residents. If it had not been discovered early, it could have become a dangerous blaze, says Greg Kleinberg, fire marshal for City of Medford Fire & Rescue.
"These close calls are important reminders about how critical it is to have working smoke alarms in a home," says Kleinberg. "The one where the lady had been sleeping could have easily been a fatality."
Properly placed and maintained, smoke alarms — which cost $15 or less — increase survival rates by 50 percent. With most fire deaths occurring between midnight and 8 a.m., smoke detectors protect residents when they're most vulnerable.
Southern Oregon resident Amber Jensen credits a series of smoke alarms for saving her home — and possibly her family of six — last summer. Just as the family was heading out the door for Fourth of July festivities, smoke detectors alerted Jensen to a fire behind an upstairs dryer.
"The smoke alarms were all connected," says Jensen. "I was on the bottom floor, and I don't think I would have heard it if only the one upstairs had gone off.
"Not only would our family and our dog not have gotten out, but it was a holiday, so not a lot of people were home, and it would have spread to the other units."
Jensen says she used to take the batteries out of her smoke detectors because they were constantly going off.
"After we moved, we made sure all the smoke detectors in our new place were working, and we made an escape plan. Before, we had no evacuation plan, and I don't want to think of what would have happened if we were on the third floor and the alarms hadn't been working."
SMOKE ALARM BASICS
Fire officials offer these basic rules to ensure smoke alarms work when they're needed:
Smoke alarms should be installed in every bedroom, at entryways outside each bedroom and on every level of the house. Avoid installation in kitchens or bathrooms to prevent false alarms.
In the event of a fire, residents often have just minutes to escape, notes Kleinberg, "so the more locations you have, the more likely you'll be notified as quickly as possible."
Monthly battery checks
Battery-operated smoke alarms and hard-wired units with backup batteries should be tested monthly. Older alarms sold with inexpensive disposables should be "upgraded" with 10-year batteries, required by Oregon law for new units.
And don't assume a working battery means a working alarm, says Kleinberg.
"We still say to push the button at least monthly to make sure the sound-producing mechanism is working properly."
Hush vs. OFF
When a false alarm goes off, new "hush" features disable alarm sounds for up to 15 minutes, so NEVER remove a battery or disable a smoke alarm.
Just as children do in school, hold monthly drills to ensure household members are familiar with smoke-alarm sounds, and practice two or more escape routes.
If you live in a subdivision or manufactured-home park, organize a neighborhood effort to check for smoke alarms. Jackson County Fire District No. 3 officials say between 28 and 65 percent of homes they visit are without working smoke detectors. Having a smoke alarm won't prevent a fire, but the early alert in a fire can save lives.
"For us, if we can get in the home and make sure that they are working and installed correctly, it's a good feeling for us to know they're protected," says Michelle Fuss, deputy fire marshal for District No. 3.
"You can replace your belongings," says Fuss. "What's most important is that you have a chance to get out safely."