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Estimating Smoke Detector Effectiveness and Utilization in Homes



Stanley W. Gilbert


This report sets out to answer three questions. What effect does installing smoke detectors have on reported fires and casualties for the “average” household? How much of an effect would increasing smoke detector utilization have on the total number of fires and casualties in the United States? And what are the attributes of homes currently without smoke detectors and where are they located? We estimate the installation of smoke detectors in homes without them reduces the expected number of fires reported from a (formerly) non-smoke-detector residence by a factor of 3.5 to 5, and reduces the number of expected casualties by a factor of 2.5 to 3.5. Unexpectedly, we find the number of casualties per reported fire is lower for non-smoke- detector households compared to smoke-detector households. This could be due to changes in people’s behavior when they have a smoke detector in the house or because the less dangerous fires are preferentially extinguished when smoke detectors are present. If smoke detectors were installed in all residences, the number of fires reported to the fire department could be reduced by 25 % or more. More realistically, each percent increase in smoke detector penetration reduces reported fires by more than 2.6 %. Finally, estimates of smoke detector utilization at the census tract level were developed for the entire country. We find evidence that the number of homes with smoke detectors are lower than current estimates that rely on telephone-only survey interviews. We estimate actual smoke detector usage is likely below 92 %. It seems likely that this is due to a correlation between phone presence and smoke detector utilization.
Technical Note (NIST TN) - 2020
Report Number


Smoke detectors, smoke alarms, small area estimation, home fires
Created November 6, 2018, Updated November 10, 2018