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Residential Smoke Alarms


How big is the problem?

A residential fire occurs every 83 seconds in the United States (1). In 1997, 3,146 deaths occurred in the U.S. due to residential fires. Of these deaths, 460 were to children aged 5 years and younger (2). Young children are especially at risk from home fire-related death and injury. Each year nearly 39,000 children ages 14 and under are injured in residential fires, and more than half of these children are ages 4 and under (3). A working smoke alarm is not present in two-thirds of the residential fires in which a child is injured or killed (4).

Policies and Details

1. Implement and enforce building codes that require the installation of hard-wired smoke alarms with battery back-up in all new home construction.

The National Fire Protection Association's National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72) requires that new homes have a smoke alarm in each sleeping area, one outside each bedroom area that is close enough to be heard through closed doors, and a minimum of one smoke alarm on each level of the home (5). In addition, NFPA code requires that smoke alarms be powered by the home's electrical system with backup battery power in case of a power outage. Local jurisdictions should follow the most recent NFPA standards and require that all new home construction comply with these requirements.

2. Implement and enforce local building codes that meet, at a minimum, current NFPA requirements regarding smoke alarms for all existing residences.

Regulations that were adopted in past decades regarding existing residences need to be updated. Some of the regulations currently in force only require a single smoke alarm in an existing home. It is not reasonable to require existing residences to be retrofitted with hard-wired smoke alarms. However, it is reasonable to require that local building codes provide similar protection to new and existing dwellings. For existing homes, the NFPA requires that each home have a smoke alarm outside each sleeping area and on every level of the home. The NFPA recommends that residents install additional smoke alarms in order to have at least the same number of smoke alarms required in new construction. The model building code would require the same number of smoke alarms in existing homes as in new ones, but battery-operated units would be acceptable instead of hard-wired systems. At a minimum, building codes should be implemented and enforced that comply with the current NFPA standards regarding the number and location of smoke alarms for existing residences.


Although more than 90% of households in the United States report having at least one smoke alarm, many of these alarms may not be working. Working smoke alarms can reduce the risk of death in a residential fire by 40-50% (6). Enacting laws that require the appropriate number of hard-wired smoke alarms in new homes and the same number of smoke alarms in existing residences will help ensure that more smoke alarms are functional.

While new homes are inspected for compliance with building codes, it is more difficult to enforce the retrofitting of smoke alarms in existing dwellings. However, there should be little opposition to pass an ordinance that will equally protect residents in new and existing dwellings. Local jurisdictions should make every effort to educate the community about the new building codes. The knowledge that building codes require smoke alarms is likely to have an influence on residents' decisions to install them. One study found that people who believed that they were required by law to have smoke alarms, regardless of whether the law actually existed in their county or not, were more likely to have them (7).


Patrick Coughlin
Executive Director
Residential Fire Safety Institute
4719 Black Swan Drive
Shawnee Mission, KS 66216
Phone: 913-268-1311
Fax: 913-268-5113

For Further Information

National Fire Protection Association
1 Batterymarch Park
PO Box 9101
Quincy, MA 02269-9101
Phone: (617) 770-3000


1. Karter, MJ. Fire Loss in the United States During 1998. Quincy, Massachusetts: National Fire Protection Association, Fire Analysis and Research Division, 1999.

2.Office of Statistics and Programming, CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. United States Residential Fire Deaths, 1997. Available online:, May 3, 2000.

3. Miller TR, Injuries and Deaths from House Fires, United States, 1996-1997. Landover, MD: Children's Safety Network Economics and Insurance Resource Center, 2000. Available online:, October 5, 2000.

4. National Safe Kids Campaign. Residential Fire Injury Fact Sheet,, March 21, 2000.

5. NFPA. Information about Smoke Alarms, and_families/fire_/smoke_alarms.htm, March 8, 2000.

6. Ahrens M. US experience with smoke detectors and other fire detectors. Quincy, Massachusetts: National Fire Protection Association, Fire Analysis and Research Division, 1997.

7. McLoughlin, E, Smoke Detector Legislation: Its Effect on Owner-Occupied Homes. American Journal of Public Health, August 1985, 75 (8): 858-862.

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Last modified: 6-Oct-2000.