National fire data indicates that smoke detectors are present in around 44 percent of fires. But in many cases, they are not actually working.


National fire data indicates that smoke detectors are present in around 44 percent of fires. But in many cases, they are not actually working.

A veto-proof majority of the New York City Council has signed on as co-sponsors of a law that would push residents to install a kind of smoke detector that might be more likely to save lives than the type frequently found in city homes.

As City Limits reported in 2013, fire safety experts have debated for years the merits of cheaper and more popular ionization detectors versus the more expensive photoelectric type.

It might seem like an obscure issue, but it generates real passion in the fire safety community. The November Council hearing attracted testimony from a Boston fire chief and a California real-estate association. People from upstate New York and as far away as Cincinnati came to testify.

“What New York City does on this issue impacts not only NYC residents,” read a presentation at that hearing by Skip Walker, representing the American Society of Home Inspectors and the California Real Estate Inspection Association. “It has broad national implications.”

Ionization detectors are better at sensing flaming fires, while photoelectric detectors are more attuned to sensing smoldering fires. Some evidence suggests that the deadliest fires—those that begin at night—are more likely to start as smoldering fires.

There’s also research that indicates ionization detectors more frequently have false alarms from, say, smoke from cooking, that lead residents to remove the battery so that they have no protection at all.

The bill to require photoelectric smoke detectors in residential buildings was initially introduced by Queens Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley in 2012. It attracted 29 co-sponsors but died at the end of that session. Re-introduced in 2014, the proposal now has 41 backers but there’s been no official action on it since a hearing last November.

Crowley’s office says it is discussing the proposal with the Fire Department and Department of Housing Preservation and Development and hopes to see the bill passed this summer. Neither FDNY nor HPD would comment.

At the November hearing, the FDNY registered qualified support for the bill. Noting that national fire-safety organizations support both kinds of smoke-detector technology, FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief Thomas McKavanagh worried “that enacting this legislation might lead some people to remove an existing ionization detector” because they think it doesn’t work, without buying a new photoelectric one.

In fiscal 2015, 59 New Yorkers died in fires—the second-lowest total in history. The number of fire deaths did tick up from 15 to 21 during the first four months of fiscal 2016. By comparison, the city of Los Angeles, roughly 46 percent as large as New York, reported 19 percent as many fire deaths last year.