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Fire research report: Smoke alarms in homes

Modern day furnishings and building materials used in homes have dramatically changed the dynamics of residential fires. The combustion of widely used synthetic materials produce faster fires with higher levels of heat and toxic smoke than natural materials, leading to significantly decreased tenability windows for the safe exit of residents. Functional smoke alarms remain the primary means of alerting occupants to fires; however, questions arise as to their effectiveness in the modern home and whether the number, location and interconnection of smoke alarms play a role.

Extensive research over three years by Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) has revealed that the number, the location and interconnection of smoke alarms play a critical role in achieving positive fire safety outcomes. 

Download the Smoke Alarms in Homes: Stage 2 report (PDF, 20MB)

Fire and Rescue NSW acknowledges and thanks the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Fire Protection Association of Australia (FPAA), Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) and its member agencies and industry partners for their generous support of its research.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who conducted the research?

The extensive residential fire safety research, which informs best practice in residential fire safety, was conducted by Fire and Rescue NSW’s Fire Investigation and Research Unit (FIRU), supported by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Fire Protection Association of Australia (FAA), Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) and its member agencies and industry partners.

Who funded the research?

Funding for stage one of this research was provided by FRNSW. Funding for stage two was provided by FRNSW and the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB). Preliminary work on stage three, as recommended by ABCB [to develop a smoke alarm performance verification protocol based on tenability criteria] has been approved and work has commenced at FRNSW Fire Investigation and Research Unit’s (FIRU) facility.

Where was the research undertaken?

The research was conducted at a full-scale replica residence at the FRNSW Fire Investigation and Research Unit’s (FIRU) facility at Londonderry.

Why sprinklers and smoke alarms need to be fitted?

The research determined that fires in modern homes spread in less than 5 minutes compared to older homes (built between 1950-70) which took around 29 minutes to spread. This demonstrates modern residential buildings and furniture/furnishings are more flammable than in previous years and that there is less time for people to evacuate safely in the event of a fire. Residents would greatly benefit from the installation of sprinkler and smoke alarm systems.

Why was this smoke alarm research undertaken?

Informing the public of the importance of working smoke alarms is critical and a central part of FRNSW’s prevention and fire safety responsibilities.

Functioning smoke alarms in your home remain the primary means of alerting people to fires, but questions arise as to their effectiveness in the modern home and whether the type and location of smoke alarms play a role.

As part of its continuing research into best practice fire safety, FRNSW’s Fire Investigation and Research Unit (FIRU) conducted the research given:

a. modern day furnishings and building materials used in homes have dramatically changed the dynamics of residential fires

b. the combustion of widely used synthetic materials produces faster fires with higher levels of heat and toxic smoke than natural materials,

c. questions arise as to the effectiveness of a single smoke alarm in the modern home and whether the number and location of smoke alarms play a role.

What was the outcome of the research?

The research considered an extensive range of fire scenarios and ignition methods representative of real life scenarios. The multi-stage research over three years has revealed:

  • Further steps are needed to improve home fire safety.
  • The critical factor in the effectiveness of smoke alarms is the number of alarms used, their location and interconnection between units.
  • Smoke alarms are like seatbelts – although a vital life-saving device, they are but one of the many tools and preventative measures required to keep occupants safe.
  • Any working smoke alarm is better than no smoke alarm.

What were the recommendations of the research?

The research findings revealed that further steps are needed to improve home fire safety. This includes:

  • The installation of smoke alarms in every living area, bedroom and hallway
  • Interconnecting all smoke alarms for maximum protection
  • Using automated fire suppression systems (home sprinklers) to help control fires in residences.

What does this mean for NSW residents? What are my obligations? Is this the law? What does the law say? Do I need to replace my current smoke alarm?

You do not need to replace your current smoke alarm. The legislation provides for a minimum level of protection. FRNSW supports this legislation however recommends that owners and occupants consider higher levels of protection than the minimum requirements. For more information, go to https://www.fire.nsw.gov.au/page.php?id=443

I have one smoke alarm installed in my four-bedroom single level house. Is this sufficient?

The current legislation requires the installation of one smoke alarm per level. FRNSW supports this legislation and recommends that owners and occupants consider higher levels of protection than the minimum requirements. This includes owner occupied homes, rental properties, relocatable homes, caravans and camper-vans or any other residential building where people sleep.

Fire sprinklers are an added layer of protection to smoke alarms. They help contain a fire to reduce the risk of fatalities, injuries and damage, as well as the risk of the spread of fire in built up cities and towns. Residential fire sprinklers suppress fires and complement the early warning capabilities of smoke alarms and other required fire suppression and containment measures.

Why do my smoke alarms need to be interconnected? What does it mean?

The interconnection of multiple alarms ensures that if one alarm detects smoke, all alarms will activate to sound the warning. Alarms can be interconnected by wires in the ceiling space or by wireless interconnection.

As an owner of a leased property is it mandatory for me to install multi- room interconnected smoke alarms?

Landlords are responsible for ensuring that leased residences meet the minimum requirements of having at least one working smoke alarm installed on every level of your home. Landlords have the right of access to rented premises to fit smoke alarms after giving the tenant at least two days’ notice.

Where a smoke alarm is of the type that has a replaceable battery, it is recommended that the landlord put a new battery in at the commencement of a tenancy.

After the tenancy begins, the tenant is responsible for replacing the battery if needed. If the tenant is physically unable to change the battery the tenant is required to notify the landlord as soon as practicable. FRNSW can also assist elderly tenants or those physically unable to change a smoke detector battery.

What are the different types of smoke alarms you can install?

There are two types of smoke alarms typically found in Australian homes - photoelectric and ionisation. Both meet the required Australian Standard AS3786.
Any working smoke alarm is better than no smoke alarm. 

Which type of smoke alarm is better?

The latest research has found that there is not one clear type of alarm technology that performs better in all situations. The critical factor in the effectiveness of smoke alarms is not a specific sensor technology but rather the number of alarms used, their location and the interconnection between units. The interconnection of multiple alarms ensures that if one alarm detects smoke, all alarms will activate to sound the warning.

How can I tell which type of smoke alarm I have installed?

Alarms are typically labelled ionised or photoelectric on the back. If these labels are not visible, ionised alarms will have a small yellow “radioactive” symbol on the unit.