Less than one-in-twenty properly maintain smoke alarms

Less than one-in-twenty Melbournians are properly maintaining their smoke alarms to protect against serious malfunction, according to new research.

A survey of 500 Melbournians by Victoria University smoke alarm experts Professor Dorothy Bruck and Dr Michelle Barnett found less than 5 per cent of people vacuumed their smoke alarm monthly, as recommended by Australian safety guidelines. 

Sixty percent of people never cleaned the inside of their smoke alarms at all.

"This is concerning because a build-up of debris inside the alarm may mean that smoke cannot be detected by the device," Professor Bruck said. "Thus people may not become aware of a fire in time to escape."

Vacuuming the smoke alarm is the only way to properly maintain a smoke alarm and keep it free of dust and insects.  Wiping it on the outside, which is all that most people do, achieves nothing, she said.

When it came to changing the battery more than half those questioned did not change batteries annually as recommended, while 17 per cent said they had never done it.  Many people with hard wired alarms did not even realize batteries needed to be changed in this type of alarm.

More than one in four people waited for the smoke alarm to start beeping before they changed the battery. 

"That can be a problem because it often beeps at an inconvenient time, such as in the middle of the night when you may not feel like getting a ladder and changing the battery," she said. 

Dead or missing batteries are the most common reason that smoke alarms don't work.

"Australia has a high rate of smoke alarm ownership, with compulsory installation requirements across all states," Professor Bruck said. "Although this is pleasing, it is not correct to assume that a smoke alarm will be in functional order without appropriate maintenance." 

The ending of daylight saving on April 3 is a good time to change the batteries and vacuum your smoke alarms on the inside in time for winter, she said. If an alarm is over 10 years old you should change the alarm itself.

The study 'Smoke alarm maintenance in an Australian community sample' has been published in Fire Safety Science by the International Association for Fire Safety Science.

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