Fire Safety

Ionisation Alarms And Future Fire Safety Technology – An Interview

As FireAngel Technical Director, James Hall is responsible for developing new fire safety products and making sure that any issues that get picked up in the field are addressed. He is also key to the general development and maintenance of the existing product range, ensuring FireAngel are compliant and up-to-date with fire safety legislation. James also ensures FireAngel products are designed to be easy to use, look good and – most importantly – function accurately. The reliability of every fire safety product is paramount in protecting FireAngel customers throughout the entirety of the product’s life, which is generally 10 years.

In the following interview James provides us with an insight into ionisation alarms (otherwise known as photoelectric smoke alarms) and why FireAngel is phasing this technology out this year.

How do ionisation smoke alarms detect fires?

In very simple terms, ionisation smoke alarms contain a very a tiny amount of radioactive material known as a ‘radioactive isotope’. This gives off very low levels of radiation (alpha particles), which reacts with air molecules causing the ‘ionisation’.

When smoke enters the sensor, it reacts with the ionised air molecules and the electronics of the smoke alarm can detect the interaction and then raise the alarm.

How are these different to optical alarms and multi-sensor alarms?

Optical alarms

An optical smoke alarm works on a completely different principle to an ionisation alarm. Optical alarms don’t contain any radioactive material, but instead use infrared emitters and receivers within a chamber that allows the free flow of smoke, but excludes light. There is a barrier between the emitter and receiver that, under normal circumstances, shields the receiver from the infrared light.

When smoke enters the chamber, some of the infrared light is scattered by the smoke particles, and reaches the receiver. The presence of smoke in the chamber operates in much the same way that you could use a mirror to look around a corner.

The more smoke there is, the more light is reflected, and so the smoke alarm can accurately measure the amount of smoke present.

Multi-sensor alarms

A multi-sensor alarm also doesn’t contain any radioactive material, but adds another layer of safety to the inherent reliability of an optical alarm. For instance, FireAngel’s Thermoptek technology monitors the temperature in their immediate environment as well as smoke. If a sudden rise in temperature is found, the smoke sensitivity of the alarm is automatically increased.

This allows the alarm to react to a real fire much more rapidly than a conventional optical-only alarm, while providing a better level of resistance to false alarms.

What is the problem with ionisation technology and particularly ionisation alarms? 

The main issues with ionisation alarms is their susceptibility to false alarms and they’re simply not as good at detecting some of the typical house fires as optical alarms. There are some types of fire that an ionisation alarm will detect more readily than an optical alarm, but in general an optical alarm will be better at detecting a typical home fire. The Fire and Rescue Services also support this. They recommend installing optical or multi-sensor alarms within homes.

There is also the issue of residents not wanting to have radioactive materials in their homes, and there are issues with how safely these products can be disposed of. Ionisation alarms have already been banned in several European countries for this reason.

What’s next for FireAngel?

Lots of things!

We’re doing a lot of work around connected alarms and real-time analysis of alarm data, which is really exciting.

We’ve had our Wi-Safe 2 range of connected products for some time now. These allow you to connect alarms together wirelessly, giving residents warning of an incident wherever they may be in a property. Our controlled experiments of Wi-Safe 2 (held in conjunction with Fire and Rescue Services)  have shown that this technology can provide several vital minutes of additional time for people to evacuate a property and dial 999.

FireAngel Connect and FireAngel Predict

We’ve taken this a stage further and developed our latest range of Smart RF products and connected solutions which connect to our secure ‘cloud’ platform, and allows the external monitoring of alarms via a smartphone/mobile devices. FireAngel Connect allows housing providers, landlords, concerned relatives or health and social care organisations to ensure that residents are protected. We’ve developed this technology further, based on data we’ve recovered from forensic analysis of smoke/heat alarms that were involved in real fires and the information we receive from our FireAngel Connect system.

Our findings? That patterns can often be found in the logs of the alarms we see, particularly from the homes of vulnerable residents. We have used these patterns to develop a machine learning algorithm that can help to identify if an individual property is at high risk of having a fire, as well as highlighting risk factors. We can then flag up this data to social landlords, fire and rescue, and/or concerned relatives.

Our unique patented technology FireAngel Predict means that we can help interested parties to intervene when a high-risk pattern or behaviour is detected which suggests that a fire is likely to occur. The Fire and Rescue Service have been supportive of this; it’s preferable to send someone round to say, ‘can we help you?’ rather than sending firefighters to put out a fire, when it could be too late. FireAngel Predict allows for sooner intervention to be taken to prevent the common causes of home fires.

What type of alarms should be installed in the home, and where?

The typical installation for most people is one smoke alarm upstairs and one downstairs, usually in the hallway and at the top of the stairs. While this will give you reasonable coverage, it falls far short of the ideal and should only be seen as a starting point.

1. A heat alarm should always be fitted in your kitchen rather than a smoke alarm

Even a Thermoptek alarm will trigger when you overcook the sausages and fill the kitchen with smoke! A heat alarm won’t trigger when you’ve burnt dinner, but it will if you’ve actually set it on fire.

2. Any other rooms where a fire could start should also have a smoke alarm

The living room is an obvious place, but a lot of people forget about the utility room. A washing machine or a fridge are two items that frequently cause fires, and there is usually at least one of these items in the utility room!

3. Fit smoke alarms in any occupied bedrooms

If you’re fitting interlinked alarms, such as the FireAngel Specification range, this will also give you a quick warning of fire, even if it has started in a distant room.

4. A CO alarm must be fitted in any room that has a fuel burning appliance.

5. Consider accessory products.

We also have a range of accessory products. Two to mention would be the wireless alarm control unit and the strobe and vibrating pad, which can also be interlinked via our Smart RF technology.

The wireless alarm control unit is the easiest way to test, silence and locate Smart RF enabled alarms. It has smoke, heat and CO alarm identification and can be installed to a set position or kept as a portable unit.

The strobe and vibrating pad is great for those that cannot hear or are hard of hearing. Typically, the strobe light would be on the bedside table and the vibrating pad underneath the pillow.

What fire safety legislation is best to refer to when installing alarms?

There is different legislation that applies in different situations. A landlord has obligations to fit smoke alarms in any rental properties they own, and a property developer/ builder is required to fit mains powered alarms in new properties.

For the retail customer, you need to check that the smoke alarms that you purchase are certified to the European Standards: BS EN14604 and carbon monoxide alarms are certified to BS EN50291. All alarms purchased from a reputable source in the UK will have been independently and rigorously certified to one of these standards.

There are unfortunately some sources, particularly online, where uncertified products can be purchased. They may claim compliance, and even carry a CE mark, but if they haven’t been independently tested by an approved certification body they may not perform correctly. These products are often no cheaper than the properly certified ones, so that’s something to be aware of!