19 June 2018
The Australian Government’s chief scientific research body, the CSIRO, is being taken to the administrative appeals tribunal as part of a campaign for data on smoke alarms.
Critics claim CSIRO test data shows ionisation smoke alarms — the most common type — are too slow to activate in smouldering fires, which they allege become the most fatal blazes.
These smoke alarms are outlawed in Europe and some US jurisdictions, and they are being phased out in Queensland and the Northern Territory, ahead of a total ban.
Independent fire protection engineer David Isaac alleged the release of the data would have serious ramifications for smoke alarm manufacturers. “I would imagine they would want to make sure that their product liability premiums were paid,” he said.
“Because it doesn’t need to have a particularly intelligent legal person to connect the dots and they can prove that the failure of an ionisation smoke alarm to warn caused injury or death.”
Mr Isaac is a member of the Australian Standards committee on smoke alarms and previously worked for a smoke alarm manufacturer, where he saw the results from CSIRO’s smoke alarm tests, conducted between 1993 and 2015.
“What the test data will show is that ionisation smoke alarms don’t activate in the test for smoke sensitivity until the obscuration or the smoke level in the room is more than four times greater than what is permitted for a photoelectric smoke alarm to pass the standard,” he said.
There are two main types of smoke alarm — photoelectric and ionisation.
The Australian Building Code mandates photoelectric alarms in all hospitals and hotels. But ionisation alarms are used in 90 per cent of Australian homes, according to fire experts.
Ionisation alarms can respond well to the more common, fast-flaming fires such as a kitchen blaze. But fire experts say those fires are less lethal.
In south-east Queensland, ionisation alarms are repeatedly blamed for deaths, including up to 12 this year.
“Year to date, we’ve already attended 194 house fires here in the south-east region, and as long as we can get back in the house — as long as it’s not totally destroyed — low and behold it’s an ionisation smoke alarm fitted up on the ceiling and it just failed to activate,” said Louie Naumovski from the Logan House Fire Support Network.
PHOTO: Logan House Fire Support Network’s Louie Naumovski said there have been 194 house fires in Queensland’s south-east region so far this year. (ABC News)
In the CSIRO test burns, Mr Isaac said the photoelectric alarm was triggered at 7-9 minutes, while the ionisation alarm activated at 16-17 minutes.
But the ionisation alarm was not deemed to fail the test — because it was not being assessed for smoke detection.
It was being assessed for sub-micron particles — they are invisible combustible fumes, somewhat akin to a heat haze.
However, Mr Isaac said the fast-smouldering CSIRO test burn was representative of the most fatal fires.
“Fires that start … at night when people sleep, from electrical faults and cigarettes on mattresses on carpet or behind a couch, are statistically the ones that kill more people,” he said.
The smoke can dull people’s senses and obscure sight. Then once the fire reaches the flaming stage, there is only about three minutes to get out.
“So, if you’re asleep in your bedroom with the bedroom door closed and the children are asleep down the hallway or upstairs or somewhere else in the home, and your ionisation smoke alarm, which is at the top of the stairs, doesn’t activate until there are flames in the stairs, I’m afraid you probably won’t get to your children to get them out and you may not get out yourself,” Mr Isaac said.
PHOTO Credit: Forensic police take photos in Wagensveldt St, Slacks Creek, where eleven people died in the 2011 house fire. (AAP: Dave Hunt)
‘The grief, the heartache’
Celebrity chef Matt Golinski lost his wife and three children in an overnight blaze in 2011. His father later told a Senate inquiry ionisation alarms were connected but did not activate.
The same year, 11 people died in Logan, south of Brisbane in Australia’s worst house fire.
Mr Naumovski said it was among the 30 per cent of households to disconnect ionisation smoke alarms because burnt toast triggered false alarms.
“The grief, the heartache, every anniversary, every birthday, every Christmas, they’re not spending with their loved ones, they’re grieving, they’re hurting,” he said.
“And, all could have been avoided if they had some warning in their home. Not having to disconnect their alarm, because it’s a nuisance one.
“If they had had a working photoelectric smoke alarm in their home, we would not have had Australia’s worst residential house fire here in Logan.”
It was heavily canvassed at a Senate inquiry, and later a coronial inquest in New South Wales led to that state’s Fire Service being tasked with research aimed to settle the dispute over smoke alarms.
The service declined to comment on the push for CSIRO test data.
The Fire and Rescue New South Wales report — released in January — found noticeable differences in alarm performance, but concluded no one smoke alarm reacts best in all situations.
It recommended more — and interconnected — alarms in homes.
But that report did not satisfy critics, including the World Fire Safety Foundation and Mr Isaac, who alleged the testing methodology was dangerously flawed because the fire service did not properly understand the technology.
They said the CSIRO test data could settle the issue, but an earlier freedom of information request was knocked back over commercial confidentiality.
Smoke alarm manufacturer Schneider Electric declined an interview request, while Chubb did not respond.
The CSIRO also declined an interview request, ahead of the hearing next month in the Freedom of Information Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Up to 150 people die in house fires in Australia and New Zealand every year.