Are you using the right smoke detector ?

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – We all have smoke detectors in our homes, but are the detectors the correct types?

For Madeira dad Dean Dennis, having the right smoke detector means his daughter, Andrea, may still be alive. She was an Ohio State University student who was killed in a fire seven years ago.

Almost two years later, Milford dad Doug Turnball lost his daughter, Julie, in a fire at Miami University after a lit cigarette started a couch fire. Turnball says the worst part is knowing her death could have been prevented.

"Both of our kids were in the prime of their lives, and they're not with us anymore," said Dean Dennis. "We're just not going to stop until people do the right things."

"Not all smoke detectors are created equal," said Turnball. "My daughter Julie died in a house that had 17 ionization smoke detectors, and by the time the very first one went off, three kids had died."

The girls didn't know each other, but now their grieving fathers have become friends.

"When we did the research and decided that these kids really didn't have to die in a fire, we felt a moral obligation to pass this information on," said Dennis. "It's not something that you can find out about and not share with other people."

They now travel the country, spreading the word about the three types of smoke detectors: photoelectric, ionization and dual detectors. Both of their girls were in buildings equipped with ionization alarms, but local fire experts say they needed photoelectric ones.

"Her house also had ionization smoke alarms in it," said Dennis. "Some of them were disabled. Some of them worked. All of the kids died of smoke inhalation. None of them got burned to death."

Both fatal fires were slow smoldering ones, where smoke fills the room minutes, sometimes even an hour, before flames do.

"Most fires that are started from smoking are started in a couch cushion or in some sort of furniture," said Sycamore Township Fire Chief B.J. Jetter. "It smolders."

Some foam from a couch cushion inside a glass aquarium. We then put the three types of smoke detectors in. Dennis stuck a soldering iron into the foam, and placed a piece of wood on top of it to seal in the smoke.

Smoke started rising after 14 minutes. Three minutes after that moment, the tank was filled with smoke. Thirty seconds after that moment, the photoelectric smoke detector went off.

The dual detector rang about a minute later. That might not sound like much, but firefighters say once a smoke detector sounds, you have seconds to make it to safety; a minute could mean the difference between life or death.

Two minutes after the aquarium filled with smoke, the carbon monoxide levels had maxed out. Jetter said that's dangerous because smoke is usually what kills fire victims.

"That's extremely dangerous levels," Jetter said. "Those are levels where people don't recover from."

At this point, the ionization alarm goes off.

"We go inside, we find someone laying on the floor," Jetter said. "The smoke detector may not be going off with the ionization because it's not picking up the particulates in the smoke right away. Photoelectric seems to be the answer."

Fairfield Township Fire Captain Jim Coggin says the problem is most people don't know there's a difference, and that most homes come with ionization smoke detectors in them.

Ionization smoke detectors contain a small amount of radioactive material that produces a small electric current between two plates, when that current is disrupted by smoke the alarm sounds. These detectors can have an "I" on the packaging, but if you don't see any symbols, chances are it's an Ionization alarm.

"That's currently installed in approximately 90-percent of the homes in America," said Capt. Coggin.

They're the cheapest on the market, costing about five to ten dollars. Many experts say ionization alarms go off quickly with fast burning fires-- ones with flames, but respond slowly to smoldering ones.

Those fires are best detected with photoelectric smoke detectors. They cost a bit more, around $15. They have a light source that detects scattering smoke particles. There's usually the word photoelectric on the box or a big "P" or a blue symbol. Experts say these detectors have fewer false alarms, meaning you're less likely to take out that battery to stop it from screaming.

Studies show as many as a third of all smoke alarms in U.S. homes are disconnected at some point which could account for hundreds of fire deaths each year.

Earlier this month, the dads helped pass Ohio's first law requiring photoelectric smoke detectors in every home in Shaker Heights. Chagrin Falls passed the same ordinance later that same night. The dads are now working with Cincinnati state senator Bill Seitz to try to pass a state law.

"Nobody thinks that they're going to die in a fire, but it happens," said Turnball. "It happened to both of [our daughters.]"

"If people had been doing what we were doing," said Dennis. "If fire officials had really understood the difference between the two technologies, like they're starting to learn now, there's a good chance our kids would be alive today. We want to make sure the tragedies that we went through. No other family should have to lose a child."

Fire officials say all smoke detectors work best when there have working batteries and are tested on a regular basis.

Firefighters recommended having a combination of both photoelectric and ionization alarms in your home. Also, remember the entire smoke detector needs to be replaced every ten years. If you have questions about your smoke detector contact your local fire department.

To read more about the types of smoke detectors and the debate surrounding which one is "better" click the links below.

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