Smoke Detector Fail: A Taking Action Update – The Tapps’ Story

In a Taking Action Investigation, WHNT News 19 recently uncovered a disturbing delay in one type of smoke alarm.  Right now, there are two types of smoke alarms on the market.  Ionization smoke alarms detect flames whereas photoelectric smoke alarms detect smoke.Here’s how they work:

  • Ionization-type smoke alarms have a small amount of radioactive material between two electrically charged plates, which ionizes the air and causes current to flow between the plates. When smoke enters the chamber, it disrupts the flow of ions and reduces the flow of current, then activating the alarm.
  • Photoelectric-type alarms aim a light source into a sensing chamber at an angle away from the sensor. Smoke enters the chamber, reflecting light onto the light sensor; triggering the alarm.

WHNT News 19 decided to conduct a test of both smoke alarms.  The final result after smoke was present:

  • Ionization: 17 minutes
  • Photoelectric: 2 minutes, 48 seconds.


Here’s the link to view our test.

After the report aired, WHNT News 19 received several calls and emails from viewers.  However, one story stood out among the rest.  Nikki Tapp told us she had tears in her eyes after watching our smoke alarm investigation.  She had no idea there were two types of alarms and had recently experienced a house fire, displacing her, her husband Jim and their six young children.

Nikki said the home she was renting in Florence was equipped with six working ionization smoke detectors.  All of the alarms were fairly new and had fresh batteries.  You can imagine Tapp’s surprise when her home caught fire and not a single alarm went off.  Luckily, they weren’t home at the time.

“I cried for two days, thinking about what could have happened had we been home,” said Tapp.  “My son’s room was right next store to where the fire started and he would have succumbed to it first and foremost.”

The fire started in their attic.  The Tapps were working at their family business, Killen Time Flea Market in Florence.  But Nikki said she needed to run back to the house to grab some diapers for her twin baby girls.  She arrived to see smoke billowing from the home.   A Killen police officer rushed to help.  Tapp said she couldn’t believe it when he entered the house and disappeared into a blanket of smoke.

And yet, the alarms still remained silent.

“They are selling a product that gives you a false sense of security,” said Tapp.

The Tapps are currently living in a camper on the grounds of their business.  The home they were renting is current uninhabitable, because the fire caused extensive fire, smoke and water damage.

Their purpose in contacting WHNT News 19 was to share their story in hopes that other homeowners understand the flaw with ionization smoke alarms.

“These need to be pulled off the shelf,” said Tapp.  “They are absolutely worthless.”

The International Association of Fire Fighters is urging homeowners to make sure their homes are equipped with photoelectric smoke detectors.  The Alabama State Fire Marshal’s office also recommends dual protection of both types of smoke alarms in homes and businesses.

In the last few years, Vermont, Massachusetts and Iowa have passed legislation either banning ionization smoke alarms or requiring both types to be installed in residential homes and businesses.   Tennessee is currently considering similar legislation.

WHNT News 19 has sent letters to three State Senators and two U.S. Senators, along with DVD’s of our smoke alarm test, requesting action on their part.  We want Alabama to join other states in requiring photoelectric alarms.  Read the letter.

We will stay on top of this story and we will let you know how our lawmakers respond.

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