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The Alarming Truth About Smoke Detectors.

Prior to this particular case, all smoke detectors were the same to me. Then in 2010, I was called on to assist in a case involving the untimely death of a family in a house fire.

The family was sleeping in their home when a fire in the living room started because of a surge protector device malfunctioning. A spark from this power strip ignited a couch cushion and a fire ensued. When a fire starts in a couch cushion the smoke that is created is some of the most dense smoke from any fire. Unfortunately, this same smoke is also the most fatal type of smoke in that it literally smothers those around it.

This particular family was in a house that was equipped with ionization smoke detectors.

What is an Ionization Smoke Detector?

Ionization smoke detectors are just one of two types of smoke detectors.  Ionization smoke detectors work by having a unit within the detector that contains specially charged particles that are affected by the presence of smoke particles.  Once the smoke particles enter the detector and effect the particles within the unit.  Once those particles are impacted by the smoke particles, it breaks the circuit and the alarm sounds.  Photoelectric detectors work by having a beam of light between two mirrors and if smoke particles break that beam in any way then the dectector will alarm.

The thing that is not clear about these detectors is that the company like to sell them as “smoke alarms” and since the ionization detectors is an older technology the manufacturers have developed a more efficient and cheaper method of producing them.  They are cheaper and the companies make more money when they sell them since, by volume, they move more of these.
The Issue
The issue is that ionization detectors are slow at detecting slow smoldering fires and better at detecting fast flaming fires.  Slow smoldering fires are deadly fires since they would include furniture fires that are deadly even before there are any significant flaming.  Since most folks think that all smoke alarms are the same they generally purchase the cheapest of the smoke detectors.  This would mean that most are ionization detectors when they only protects the house from smoke from fast flaming fires.
This family was killed from a slow smoldering fire that started near a couch and the house was filled with toxic smoke killing the occupants from smoke inhalation before there was any substantial flaming.  The ionization detectors in the house were recovered and were powered up and only began to alarm when the fire department arrived on the scene.
Capitalizing on the Ignorance of Consumers
The case against the manufacturer of the smoke detectors centered around the defects in the design and marketing of these products since they were capitalizing on the ignorance of the consumers and not adequately informing the consumers to the dangers of only having one type of smoke detectors.
Of course, the manufacturer argued that their packaging insert clearly described the difference between the two types of detectors.  They moved for summary judgment and the court denied their motion.  The case was later settled for a confidential amount that included non monetary requirements that the manufacturer provide educational services to the general public concerning the difference between the tow type of detectors and the recommendation that consumer purchase detectors that have both technologies.
Check Your Smoke Detectors
For the best protection of your family, you should make sure that you have smoke alarms that have both photoelectric and ionization technologies.  The companies now make detectors that have both technologies contained in the same unit.
The recovery for this family was significant to both the survivors and the public since we were able to affect consumers moving forward.  There is still much to do since many still do not appreciate the difference between the two types of smoke detector technologies.

Joe Zarzaur, founder of Zarzaur Law, P.A., a Pensacola Personal Injury law firm, has created this blog in an effort to educate the many citizens and visitors of Pensacola, Florida about their legal rights. Joe Zarzaur knows the ins and outs of Florida law, and offers friendly-quality legal help whether you have experienced an auto accident/car wreck, have been a victim of medical malpractice or are in need of a personal injury lawyer. For more information, visit:

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Pensacola, FL 32502
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