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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Beep beep beep, chirp: Fire Department explains different alarm sounds during National Fire Prevention Week

Figuring out what alarm is chirping and why can be a conundrum and it’s likely to start happening more as carbon monoxide detectors reach the end of their useful life.

That’s why the theme for 2021 National Fire Prevention week Oct. 3-9 was “Learn the Sounds of Fire Safety,” said Jamie McIntyre, community risk reduction manager at the Spokane Fire Department.

In 2013, a new state law went into effect requiring existing residences have carbon monoxide alarms with few exceptions. Alarms installed shortly before the law went into effect either already will have stopped working or will be unable to continue monitoring for “the invisible killer” this year, McIntyre said.

Carbon monoxide poisoning kills more than 400 people nationwide annually. It’s called the invisible killer because the deadly gas can’t be seen or smelled. The gas comes from many sources, including cars, appliances like furnaces or water heaters, room heaters or generators.

In the fall, after months sitting idle, furnaces are more likely to have developed problems that could lead to carbon monoxide gas leaking into the home, said Spokane Fire Marshal Lance Dahl. That’s why it’s important to ensure carbon monoxide monitors work property, Dahl said.

Space heaters, which are more commonly used in the fall and winter, can also be the cause of house fires, Dahl said. A working smoke alarm is key to alerting residents early so they can escape to safety.

“You should really be looking at replacing your alarms as they start to age out at 10 years,” Dahl said.

Older alarms had batteries that could be replaced periodically, but newer alarms are tamper-proof and need to be installed. On the back of the smoke alarm, the end-of-life date should be visible, Dahl said.

Carbon monoxide alarms often need replacement in the five- to eight-year range, Dahl said. Some alarms that were rated to last 10 years when they were manufactured have now been recalled to only last seven or eight years, he added. A list of recalled alarms is available on the Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

Smoke, carbon monoxide and combination alarms are available at most local hardware stores and online. Most basic alarms cost less than $20. However, if financially or physically installing the alarm is difficult, most fire departments, including SFD, have a free installation program. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SFD’s capacity to install alarms is diminished, but there is a wait list.

Alarms will tell residents if it needs to be replaced with different beeps and chirps, McIntyre said.

Smoke alarms are uniform, she said. If there’s significant smoke, the alarm will go, “beep beep beep,” pause, then repeat, she said. If the battery is dead, the alarm is malfunctioning or needs replaced, the alarm will chirp.

Carbon monoxide alarms have more variety in their alerts depending on the manufacturer, but generally the alarm will beep in a pattern with a short pause before repeating if it detects high levels of gas. For a battery or functionality problem, it will chirp or beep, then take a long pause before sounding again.

Every alarm has a manual for its sounds, either on the back of the unit or in its packaging.