How to Set and Enforce a Smoke Detector Agreement
An operable smoke detector is the most critical device for preventing deaths, injuries, and property loss from fires. According to research conducted by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the home fire deaths in the United States were the result of fires in homes with no smoke alarms or no working smoke alarms. And in more than half (53 percent) of the home fires in which smoke alarms were present but did not operate, the batteries were missing or disconnected.
And yet, despite the danger, a disabled or inoperable smoke detector is one of the most common violations cited by state housing agencies during tax credit site physical inspections. Why? Residents frequently will remove the smoke detector's batteries or otherwise disable it because of nuisance alarms caused by cooking fumes or steam from hot showers.
Minimize the Chance of Nuisance Alarms
If you find that residents repeatedly disable the smoke detectors located in or near the kitchen, the problem may lie in the type of smoke detectors you have. The two most common types are ionization smoke detection and photoelectric smoke detection. Ionization-type detectors are generally more responsive to flaming fires, while photoelectric smoke detection is more responsive to fires that begin with a long period of smoldering.
Ionization-type smoke alarms are more susceptible to nuisance alarms from cooking vapors, says Patrick Coughlin, regional manager, State and Local Government, for the International Code Council. “The easiest way to resolve the problem is to replace the ionization detector with a photoelectric detector or an ionization photoelectric detector, which is a combination and the best of both worlds,” he says. The combination detectors cost, on average, $10 more than the ionization detectors, but are well worth the investment if it prevents residents from tampering with the devices.
Practical Pointer: According to the NFPA, smoke detectors have a 3 percent per year failure rate. Thus, after 10 years, 30 percent of detectors will not work effectively, and after 15 years, only half will work as designated. Be sure to set up a replacement program every 10 years for your site's smoke detectors, advises Coughlin. “They become more sensitive over time, and after about 10 years, they're very likely to give off intermittent alarms—and they're also likely to fail.”
Inform Residents of Their Responsibilities
While choosing smoke detectors that are less likely to be triggered by cooking or hot showers is a good first step in keeping residents from disabling the devices, resident education is also important.
Include information about your site's smoke detector policy in your resident welcome packages and provide regular reminders, suggests Cindy Clare, president of Kettler Management. “We try to remind residents to keep batteries in their smoke detectors once a quarter when we conduct our preventive maintenance,” she says.
Most sites also include a smoke detector statement in the lease or house rules. Olynger Management Corp.'s properties go a step further. “We use the Rural Development approved lease at our properties, which has a section in it about smoke detectors. But we feel that having a separate attachment to the lease gives the rules concerning smoke detectors more clout,” says Cynthia Lewis, site coordinator for Olynger Management Corp., which oversees 38 rural development and tax credit communities in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky.
When developing a smoke detector house rule or agreement, be sure to clearly explain the residents' responsibilities for maintaining their units' smoke detectors in good working order, such as replacing the batteries at least twice a year, testing the alarm occasionally, and alerting management immediately if the alarm does not appear to be working properly. In addition, any consequences for not meeting their responsibilities should also be spelled out, such as fines or lease termination. (See our Model Agreement: Have Residents Sign Separate Agreement to Emphasize Smoke Detector Rules, for an example of what to include.) Be sure to provide a copy of the smoke detector manufacturer's maintenance requirements to residents along with the agreement.
Check Detectors as Part of Regular Preventive Maintenance
At Kettler Management's properties, residents' smoke detectors are checked on a quarterly basis—as part of the preventive maintenance program, says Clare. Maintenance staff will also check detectors whenever they're in a unit on a work order.
If your site conducts less frequent unit inspections, consider having your maintenance staff check the smoke detectors during monthly exterminator visits. On each inspection, make sure that they list all units with inoperable detectors so that you can keep track of the frequent violators, and follow up with residents.
Enforce Smoke Detector Agreements
In addition to specifying the consequences of tampering with or disabling the devices in your site's smoke detector house rules, set a limit for the number of violations, says affordable housing risk management consultant Gwen Zander. For instance, if a resident violates the house rules X number of times, then it could be grounds for eviction.
“House rules violations should be written up and documented with a letter sent to the resident by U.S. mail,” she says. But make sure that “house rule policies are evenly and equally enforced, otherwise it is grounds for a discrimination lawsuit.”
You can also ask your local fire marshal's office or code enforcement to send the resident a warning letter stating that it is a violation to disable smoke detectors. Sometimes getting a local authority involved is all it takes to make the right impression on a frequent violator, says Clare.
Cindy Clare, CPM: President, Kettler Management; (703) 226-6010; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Coughlin: Regional Manager, State and Local Government, International Code Council; (913) 708-5917; email@example.com.
Cynthia Lewis: Site Coordinator, Olynger Management Corp.; (765) 674-3074; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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