Ionization Smoke Detector Injuries in St. Louis: What You Should Know

AUTHOR: A.J. Bruning | March 21, 2020
Ionization Smoke Detector Injuries in St. Louis: What You Should Know

“It is a primal fear, an age old fear of fire. Of all man’s Fears nothing else is quite so dreadful. Scream “FIRE” in a crowded place and it will be as a knife is plunged into the heart of every person present. There will be such a rush to escape that panic, not the fire itself, may be the major killer. When the heat is five times the temperature of boiling water, when the flesh begins to peel from the body, when the hair upon a child’s head flashes into flames, and when the throat is so choked that a scream is not even possible; that is the way a hundred thousand children have died in America. And the most horrible part of it all is that those we trusted to protect them planned it that way.”

R.M. Patton, Fire Protection Engineer, March 2014

Smoke Alarm Manufacturers Have Known for 40 Years that Hundreds of Millions of Ionization Smoke Detectors Sold in the United States Do Not Work.

A story gets played out over and over again across the country, in our communities and in our courtrooms over the last 35 years. The Bruning Law Firm brings you the following:

  • Dillard v. Pittway Corp., 719 So.2d 188 (Ala. 1988), when ionization alarm installed in a boarding home failed to alert occupants of a threatening fire;
  • Mercer v. Pittway Corp., 616 N.W.2d 602 (Iowa 2000), 21.3 million dollar verdict for actual and punitive damages arising out of a 1993 fire where ionized smoke alarm failed to alarm resulting one dead and one injured child;
  • Gordon v. BRK Brands, Inc., Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis, Missouri, Case No. 972-1114, 1999 jury verdict for 50 million dollars including 30 million dollars in punitive damages where ionization smoke alarm failed to warn of a threatening fire resulting in the deaths of two children;
  • Hackert v. First Alert, Inc., 271 Fed.Appx. 31 (C.A. 2 (N.Y.)), 2.8 million dollar actual and punitive damages affirmed where an ionization alarm failed to sound an alarm resulting in two deaths.

The common theme among all these cases is an ionization alarm failing to respond to smoke in a threatening fire.

Three States, at Least 10 Municipalities, and a Region of One Foreign Country Have Banned the Use of Ionization Smoke Detectors as Stand-Alone Smoke Alarms.

There exist two different technologies utilized by smoke alarm manufacturers for residential applications: photoelectric and ionization. Smoke alarm manufacturers have in the past and currently sell ionization smoke alarms as stand-alone devices. To be sold as stand-alone smoke alarms they must meet the requirements of NFPA 72, recognized as the National Fire Alarm Code, which states:

Fire-warning equipment for residential occupancies shall provide a reliable means to notify the occupants of the presence of a threatening fire and the need to escape to a place of safety before such escape might be impeded by untenable conditions in the normal path of egress. NFPA 72, Chapter 11.2.

According to this standard, a residential smoke alarm must provide occupants with notice of a threatening fire in time to escape through a normal path of egress – down the hall, through the living room and out the door. Several governmental and regulatory bodies charged with determining the standards by which smoke alarm manufacturers abide have concluded that ionization technology, as a stand-alone device, is not safe for use in residential smoke alarms because it often fails to give occupants notice of a threatening fire in time to escape. 90% of smoke alarms in American residences are ionization-type alarms.

In Massachusetts, following research conducted by two committees, the Massachusetts Joint Building Code and Fire Code Smoke Alarm Subcommittee issued its conclusions and recommendations in December 2007. According to the Building Code and Fire Code Subcommittee smoldering fires involve circumstances where building occupants are often initially asleep and is the leading fire problem causing death and injury; the primary function of a smoke detector is to detect fire ignition and warn building occupants who are unaware of a fire; photoelectric smoke detectors provide significantly earlier detection and warning than ionization type smoke detectors in smoldering fires; and photoelectric smoke detectors should provide earlier warning to occupants involved in smoldering fires, therefore providing an enhanced level of safety and a potential reduction in fire deaths and injuries. Massachusetts adopted these recommendations in 2009.

The Joint Subcommittee was right. Since 2009 when Massachusetts legislation required photoelectric technology in all new construction, in all new apartments and in all real estate transfers, Boston (Pop. 650,000) has totaled only four fire deaths. Baltimore Maryland (Pop. 600,000) by contrast has had 75 fire deaths since 2009.

Iowa and Vermont have passed similar laws banning ionization smoke detectors as stand-alone smoke alarms. Vermont went a step further than Massachusetts by requiring photoelectric-only-type smoke detectors in dwellings. Ionization alarms may be used in addition to the photoelectric alarms but unlike photoelectric alarms, ionization alarms may not be used as stand-alone devices.

The Vermont Act adopted by the general assembly found that “photoelectric-type smoke detectors provide earlier detection and warning that ionization-type smoke detectors in smoldering fires by tens of minutes.” Many other states are considering similar legislation.

On a local level, Palo Alto, California and Albany, California have passed laws outlawing the use of ionization alarms unless used in conjunction with photoelectric alarms. Palo Alto requires both types of detectors while Albany requires photoelectrical-only type devices.

In Ohio at least eight municipalities: The City of Cincinnati, The Village of Chagrin Falls, The City of Mayfield Heights, Mayfield Village, Moreland Hills, The City of Oxford, Shaker Heights, and Lyndhurst have all passed laws forbidding the use of ionization-type smoke alarms as stand-alone devices. Cincinnati requires photoelectric alarms outside each sleeping area. The Village of Chagrin Falls found that photoelectric smoke alarms alert a warning 12 to 30 minutes faster than an ionization alarm in a smoldering fire. Mayfield Heights requires any primary smoke detector installed to be a photoelectric detector. Mayfield requires photoelectric alarms but permits them to be supplemented with ionization alarms. In Moreland Hills, the Fire Chief concluded that photoelectric smoke detectors provide greater safety than dual or ionization detectors. The Chief of Fire in Shaker Heights concluded that photoelectric smoke detectors will provide greater safety in the community than dual or ionization smoke detectors.

The dangers of ionization smoke detectors as stand-alone smoke alarms is also becoming recognized internationally.Beginning in 2011 residential premises in the Northern Territory of Australia were required to replace existing alarms with photoelectric smoke alarms.

Independent Interests Ranging from Grass Roots Groups to International Organizations Agree that Ionization Smoke Detectors are Unreasonably Dangerous and Fail to Meet Consumer Expectations as Stand-Alone Smoke Alarms.

The movement to stop the sale and use of ionization detectors as stand-alone smoke alarms ranges from large international groups to individuals who are fed up with the needless harms and losses associated with ionization alarms. Photoelectric technology has been proven to provide maximum safety yet inferior ionization alarms continue to be sold by smoke alarm manufacturers as stand-alone devices.

Smoke alarms are mass produced home electrical appliances but unlike clocks, radios and televisions when a smoke alarm fails we miss much more than an appointment, a song or our favorite program; we lose lives. Thus, the following passionate expressions from concerned communities around the world.

  • The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), an organization based in Washington, D.C. representing 300,000 full-time professional firefighters and paramedics, urges households to change to photoelectric smoke alarms. “It is the position of the IAFF that all federal, state and provincial officials should require that all relevant building standards and codes developed in the United States and Canada include a mandate for the use of photoelectrical smoke alarms.”
  • The International Association of Fire Chiefs report of the Special Subcommittee of Automatic Detection Committee of the IAFC, 1980: “Therefore, because of the present state of the art in detecting smoke, the subcommittee on smoke detection can take no other course but to recommend the installation of photoelectric detectors. The subcommittee makes this recommendation because most home fires start from a smoldering source, and because the photoelectrical detectors are sensitive to open flame fires as well as smoldering fires.”
  • The Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association endorses the use of photoelectric alarms. “In the interest of public safety and to protect the public from the deadly effects of smoke and fire, the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association endorses the use of photoelectric smoke alarms in order to remove the confusion of the different technologies and simplify the installation of an alarm that has proven to save property and lives.”

Position Paper of the North Eastern Ohio Fire Prevention Association, March 2010, representing over 300 fire departments and private fire protection companies: “After researching articles published by National Institute of Standards and Testing (NIST), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and Texas A&M University, the NEOFPA with the backing of the Ohio Fire Officials Association (OFOA), is establishing a position that supports the installation of residential smoke detectors utilizing photoelectric technology.” “It is the position of NEOFPA that all homes be protected with both technologies …” See:, a website created by NEOFPA.

Position paper on residential smoke detectors by the Southwest Ohio Fire Safety Council, April 2010: again, citing research of articles and data published by NIST, NFPA and Texas A&M University, “It is the position of the SWOFSC that all homes be protected with a minimum of both photoelectric and ionization type smoke detectors …” “Photoelectric smoke detectors alert much faster for smoldering fires that cause many of the deaths when occupants are sleeping.”

In the 1991 Norwegian Smoke Alarm Study, researchers in Norway studied and tested the performance of ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms. The researchers concluded that ionization smoke alarms were poor at detecting smoke from smoldering fires; that many fires begin as smoldering fires before transitioning into flaming fires; therefore by the time an ionization detector goes into alarm the occupants could already be dead. “From these test results one could clearly conclude that smoke alarms in dwellings preferably should be based on the optical detector principle (photoelectric), if only one type should be applied.”

In June, 1997 a refereed article titled, “Risk Analysis of Residential Fire Detector Performance” in the Journal of Applied Science, the authors studied data from research from the Full Scale Research and Testing of Fire Detection Systems in a residential structure conducted at Texas A&M University to analyze the risk of death in residential fire.

“The probability of a fatality due to the failure of the photoelectric detector to detect a smoldering ignition fire is 4.06%. The probability of a fatality due to the failure of an ionization detector to detect a smoldering ignition fire is 55.8% … The probability of a fatality due to the failure of the photoelectric detector to detect a flame ignition file is 3.99%. The probability of a fatality due to the failure of the ionization detector to detect a flame ignition fire is 19.8%.”

Dean Dennis and Doug Turbull, Fathers For Fire Safety, are two fathers who lost daughters in residential fires when multiple ionization smoke alarms failed to sound an alarm. Mr. Dennis and Mr. Turbull travel throughout the United States educating citizens and fire personnel regarding the dangers of ionization alarms. The Fathers For Fire Safety strongly advocate for photoelectric smoke alarm technology and believe that it is imperative for everyone to have this type of alarm in their homes.

U.S. Senator John Kerry, current U.S. Secretary of State, urged the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission to respond to growing concerns that ionization smoke alarms are failing to protect members of our communities in his June 12, 2008 letter: “The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has found that, on average, a photoelectric detector is 30 minutes faster in detecting a smoldering fire than an ionized detector.

The highest percentage of deaths caused by smoldering fires occurs while people are sleeping, when the operation of a smoke detector is critical…. Four years ago NIST reached the conclusion that ionization detectors sometimes fail to alarm in smoldering fires, even when visibility is significantly degraded by smoke.… Fire safety and the use of working smoke alarms are vital to the protection of our children, seniors, adults, and families around the United States. I strongly urge you to provide a timely response to the above concerns and consider the potential loss of life should it become clear that a large percentage of Americans are using inadequate smoke detectors.”

The Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office recommends installing combination smoke alarms that utilize photoelectric and ionization technology instead of ionization only technology. In 2011, The California Real Estate Inspection Association (CREIA) became the first home inspection organization in the world to take a stand when CREIA adopted a position endorsing photoelectric alarms mirroring the position of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC), representing over 250,000 emergency management professionals issued its position on residential smoke alarms in June, 2006. It is the position of AFAC that all residential accommodations be fitted with photoelectric alarms. “As many fires in residential accommodation(s) begin as smoldering fires, photoelectric smoke alarms provide more effective all-round detection and alarm than ionization alarms.” The World Fire Safety Foundation is a not for profit organization founded in 2000. Its entire objective is to educate consumers, governments and regulatory authorities of the dangers associated with ionization smoke alarms.

R.M. Patton, a Fire Protection Engineer has published “Why America is Burning”, a no holds barred critical exposé on the smoke alarm industry and Underwriter Laboratories, NIST and NFPA for their roles in permitting ionization smoke alarms to be sold in America as stand-alone smoke alarms.

The smoke alarm industry has been put on notice of ionization alarms failing to meet consumer expectations by dozens of news investigative reports aired over the last 20 years. These reports, shown on broadcast television and now easily available on the internet, Google and YouTube, reveal what smoke alarm manufacturers have known all along: that ionization smoke alarms have a high failure rate in many real-world fires; that many individuals have been killed or terribly injured in fires where an ionization alarm failed to sound, and the performance of ionization smoke alarms in real-world fires fails to meet the expectations of consumers.

The news videos offer many tragic stories of lives ruined when ionization smoke alarms fail to sound an alarm during real residential fires occurring in the middle of the night. In one 20/20 report a smoke alarm industry executive admits that ionization smoke alarms sound 15 minutes after photoelectric alarms in some fires. The Today Show report by Jeff Rossen presents a test conducted at Texas A&M University which visually demonstrates ionization detectors failing to sound an alarm in a fire with an electrical ignition source before conditions become deadly.

<iframe width="200" height="113" src="" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture; web-share" referrerpolicy="strict-origin-when-cross-origin" allowfullscreen title="NBC TODAY Show Rossen Reports &quot;Some smoke detectors may not go off in time&quot; - 10/03/2012"></iframe>

The Smoke Alarm Industry’s Actual Knowledge that Ionization Stand-Alone Smoke Alarms Fail to Meet Consumer Expectations

Proof that the smoke alarm industry knows its ionization smoke alarms are unreasonably dangerous in that they do not meet consumer expectations for the performance of a residential smoke alarm is as follows:

  1. The many lawsuits filed all over the country where consumers claim an ionization smoke alarm failed to give occupants notice of a threatening fire in time to escape through the normal path of egress resulting in deaths and injuries;
  2. The state, local and international laws prohibiting the sale and use of ionization smoke alarms as stand-alone safety devices because they fail to detect smoke from common household fires in time to alert occupants of the need to escape;
  3. The multitude of critics of ionization technology as stand-alone smoke alarms and the international movement towards photoelectric technology as a safe alternative;
  4. Multiple television investigative reports demonstrating the poor response of ionization smoke alarms;
  5. The hundreds upon hundreds of consumer complaints directed to smoke alarm manufacturers over the past 25 years documenting the fact that ionization smoke alarms fail to respond to smoke in common real world residential fires.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Experienced personal injury lawyers, scientists, journalists, judges, juries and concerned citizens are all part of the movement to make our homes and communities safer. If you need help because of a defective ionization smoke alarm you need to hire a smoke detector attorney that is familiar with smoke detectors, call us for a free consultation. We handle these cases across the nation, we can help you.

A.J. Bruning


I was born and raised to represent individuals who have been needlessly injured. I mean that literally. At a young age my father would tell me about the clients he was representing. I would meet them and take pride in their admiration of my father. I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer and represent clients that needed my help.

Author's Bio

You Might Also Be Interested In