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Prevalence of Smoke Detectors in Private Residences -- DeKalb County, Georgia, 1985

To estimate the prevalence of smoke detectors in private residences in DeKalb County, Georgia (one of the several counties comprising greater Atlanta), and to ascertain factors associated with ownership, CDC conducted a county-wide random-digit-dialing telephone survey in July 1985 in cooperation with the DeKalb County Department of Public Safety, Fire Services, and the Georgia Department of Human Resources. Information requested included the following: whether a smoke detector was owned and installed; reasons for not owning a smoke detector; methods of testing the detector; residential and demographic characteristics of the respondent; and other data related to fire safety and prevention.

Interviews were conducted only if an adult household member (18 years of age or older) was available and if the household was a private residence. From a sampling frame including all phone numbers with DeKalb County prefixes, 2,477 numbers were randomly selected and called at least twice during one evening; 626 (25.3%) of these were eligible for inclusion. An additional 1,086 (43.8%) numbers were ineligible (due to nonworking numbers, business phones, or other reasons), and no one answered at 765 (30.9%) numbers. Of the 626 eligible residents contacted, 435 completed interviews.

Later, a random subsample of nonrespondent numbers was called up to 10 times to determine the characteristics of persons not reached in the original survey. Two-thirds of the numbers not contacted during the original survey were ineligible. Results of the callback survey were similar to those of the original survey for smoke detector ownership and other demographic characteristics (Table 1). Moreover, the original survey showed demographic characteristics similar to those based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

The prevalence of reported smoke detector ownership was 76.3%--comparable to the national average--although nearly 5% (15/332) of owned detectors were not reported to be installed (Table 1). Over half (57.9%) of the respondents reported owning fire extinguishers, and 65.7% also indicated having a fire escape plan for their dwelling.

In dwellings under 10 years old, 89.9% had smoke detectors, compared with 71.8% in dwellings 10 years old or older (Table 2). Dwellings with residents over 65 years of age had an 18.3% lower prevalence of smoke detector ownership (64.1%) than those not so characterized (78.5%).

Nearly 85% of residents owning fire extinguishers also owned smoke detectors, while 64.8% of residents without fire extinguishers owned smoke detectors. Households in which the respondent believed that smoke detectors save lives were over twice as likely than other households to own smoke detectors (77.9 compared with 33.3%).

Characteristics not significantly associated with smoke detector ownership included sex and race of respondent, education level of head of household, ownership of dwelling, presence of a child 5 years of age or younger, a smoker in residence, type of dwelling, and a fire escape plan.

Although 121 (37.9%) of 319 of the sample of smoke detector owners tested their detectors at least once a month, 19.7% said they had never tested the devices. The remaining 47.3% of owners tested theirs less than once a month. The most frequently used manner of testing (40.3%) was by activating a button on the detector. Another 27.3% of respondents tested the detector by smoke challenge; 16.9% used both methods. The remaining respondents who tested used other methods. In a nonrandom home inspection follow-up of 10.6% of the original phone survey responders, nearly 30% of the owners had nonfunctioning smoke detectors, although they reported having an installed detector in their home.

The most common reasons for not owning smoke detectors were: "keep forgetting/putting off" (51.5%); "no interest/never thought about it" (37.8%); "not my responsibility" (24.0%); and "cost" (15.8%). Reported by GN Bohan, MD, DeKalb County District No. 3, Unit No. 5, Capt CL Varnadoe, DeKalb County Dept of Public Safety, Fire Svcs, RK Sikes, DVM, State Epidemiologist, Georgia Dept of Human Resources; JR Hall, Jr, PhD, Fire Analysis Div, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, Massachusetts; Div of Injury Epidemiology and Control, Center for Environmental Health, Div of Nutrition, Center for Health Promotion and Education, Div of Surveillance and Epidemiologic Studies, Epidemiology Program Office, Epidemic Intelligence Service Class of 1985, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note:Every year in the United States, more than 4,000 deaths and 20,000 injuries result from residential fires (1). Many of these deaths and injuries occur at night while the victims are asleep and result from smoke and gas inhalation rather than flames. A study of deaths due to house fires in 1980, for example, showed that 66% were attributable to carbon monoxide or unspecified fumes (2).

Smoke detectors are a reliable method of awakening people before air becomes unbreathable from the buildup of smoke, carbon monoxide, and other toxic gases (3). Thus, these devices should allow more people to escape uninjured from house fires. The U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) has estimated that a person who has a home fire and does not have a detector is twice as likely to die in that fire as a person protected by detectors (4).

The prevalence of smoke detectors in the United States. has been steadily increasing since the early 1970s, when only about 5% of households had them (4). By 1985, an estimated 75% of households had at least one smoke detector. Similarly, during 1978-1984, deaths from house fires dropped more than 30%, from 6,015 to 4,075. This decline is attributed in part to recent home fire safety efforts, including the passage of numerous state laws requiring the installation of smoke detectors (1). However, significant differences in the level of ownership among geographic regions exist. States in the South, for example, have the lowest prevalence of smoke detector ownership, although they have the highest fire fatality rates (4).

Results from this study suggest that, although many households have a smoke detector, adequate protection by these devices may be overestimated. Nonoptimal protection can be inferred from several findings: (1) 15 (4.5%) of the 332 households with smoke detectors did not have them installed; (2) 19.7% of owners never tested their smoke detectors, and on inspection, nearly 30% of the installed detectors were nonfunctioning; and (3) households with at least one smoke detector may not have all the smoke detectors needed or may have them improperly placed.

Finally, death rates from house fires are highest among older persons. This study also suggests that, even if the overall level of smoke detector prevalence in a community is high, this high-risk subgroup has a lower rate of ownership than other groups in DeKalb County. Results from a recent study suggest that the elderly, the poor, people who did not finish high school, and other groups at high risk of dying in a fire have been less likely to obtain detectors (4). Nonwhite households also have a lower prevalence of detectors than white households (5). (The differences in percentage of detector ownership by race and by education level of the head of the household in the national study were not found in the DeKalb County study; this may have been due to the size of the sample compared with the national surveys.)

Smoke detector protection should be a component of any community injury-control program, especially for older persons and other high-risk groups. It is inadequate to limit such a program solely to handing out smoke detectors. Proper installation and frequent testing are necessary to ensure adequate protection. Also, an important component is educating individuals on how best to use the extra escape time provided by their detectors. This includes not only creating an escape plan to be used in a fire, but also rehearsing that plan (4).


  1. Hall JR. A decade of detectors: measuring the effect. Fire Journal 1985 (September):37-78.

  2. Karter MJ. Fire loss in the United States during 1984. Fire Journal 1985 (September):14-76.

  3. Baker SP, O'Neill B, Karpf R. Burns and fire deaths. The injury fact book. Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1984:139-54..

  4. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. What you should know about smoke detectors. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1983.

  5. Hall JR, Jr, Groeneman S. Two homes in three have detectors. Fire Service Today 1983 (February): 18-20.

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