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CBS4 Puts Smoke Detectors To The Test

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) -- Firefighters say it's the single most important item you should have in your house.  A smoke alarm.  But which kind is best at detecting a fire danger? CBS4 is putting them to the test and what we found surprised the fire marshal.

An average house fire doubles in size every minute.  So when seconds count it's up to a smoke alarm to wake you up.

"65% of the time when there is a fatality or a serious injury, it's because either the smoke detectors were not installed or were not working," explained Fort Lauderdale Fire Department Captain Ron Tetreault.

CLICK HERE To Watch David Sutta's Report 

There are three types of smoke detectors on store shelves.

Ionization detectors are typically the cheapest ones, around $10, and usually do well with sensing flames.

Photoelectric detectors cost about twice as much and are supposed to pick up smoke faster.

Then there are combo detectors with both technologies.  They run $30 and up.

With the help of Fort Lauderdale's Housing Authority, firefighters staged a test for CBS4's David Sutta.

In an abandoned complex, they installed all three alarms.

Capt. Tetreault installed the alarms all at the same height just outside a kitchen.

"Captain May is going to set a small fire in the kitchen and what you guys will be able to do is film and see which one activates the quickest," he explained.

Within seconds the room gets hot.  Smoke begins to fill the room.  The first alarm goes off at 30 seconds.  Tetreault looks closely.  "That's your ionization smoke detector that went off first," he said.  That's the cheapest alarm we put up.

The second alarm, the photoelectric, goes off about 10 seconds later.

Finishing in last place?  The combination ionization - photoelectric detector.

"Actually, the most expensive smoke detector activated last." Tetreault said surprised.

The results surprising just about everyone.

"You don't have to buy the most expensive detector but at least have one of these outside every bedroom in your house," said Tetreault.

This year Fort Lauderdale purchased a fire safety trailer with grant money.  Tetreault walked us through it.  It simulates a house kitchen and bedroom.  With a remote control he activates light, sound, and smoke machines.  Upon pressing a button the kitchen stove begins to smoke.  The sound of fire crackling can be heard.

"It will actually produce smoke. The smoke detector will go off indicating that there is an emergency."

It's as realistic as it gets without actually starting a fire.

He hits another remote.  A toaster begins to smoke.

"So if you ever had a toaster fire you would want to unplug it, to remove the heat source," he explained.

While smoke detectors are important, knowing what to do when they go off is just as important.

"The primary problem that people have is they don't practice fire safety in their home.  We all do fire drills at school.  We sometimes do fire drills at work.  Nobody does fire drills or practices fire safety in their house," Tetreault said.

Ultimately, Fort Lauderdale's Fire Department says you should have a smoke detector inside and outside every bedroom in your home.  Try to keep from installing a detector in the kitchen.  Most likely it will go off when there isn't a fire.  The false alarms will cause you to disable the alarm in the end.

Many fire departments will install smoke detectors or change batteries at no cost to you.  Contact your local fire department for more information.

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