New year brings deadline to comply with Maryland law requiring smoke alarm upgrade

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Many Maryland homeowners are facing a Monday deadline to comply with a fire safety law requiring them to replace older smoke alarms with devices that have sealed-in, long-lasting batteries.

The Maryland Smoke Alarm Law — passed in 2013 — requires homes with battery-powered smoke detectors and those with no detectors to have newer tamper-resistant alarms by Jan. 1, 2018.

The law affects an estimated 800,000 homes, according to the Maryland Office of the Fire Marshal.

The provision was part of a larger update to state fire safety law, and aims to prevent deaths that result from older fire alarms with dead or missing batteries. The tamper-resistant models have a sealed, 10-year battery that a homeowner or renter cannot remove.

They also have a “hush” button to temporarily silence alarms going off during nonemergency situations — such as when smoke from cooking sets off the alarm in error. In those instances, the fire alarm resets after a few minutes. In a sustained fire, the hush feature is overridden.

“Being sealed takes away the chances of someone borrowing the battery to use somewhere else or taking it out when cooking,” Rich Gardiner, a spokesman for the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association, said in an email. “Oftentimes, even with the best of intentions, the battery doesn't get replaced, and in some cases what has happened next is tragic.”

Officials say all alarms more than 10 years old should be replaced — the manufacture date can usually be found on the back of the alarm.

“If you can’t find a date, the alarm is most likely older than 10 years,” Gardiner said.

People who bought smoke alarms in recent years may already have the new devices. Russ Davies, spokesman for the Anne Arundel Fire Department, said some stores stopped selling removable-battery alarms a few years ago.

If state or local fire officials find a home or residence without the proper device, a smoke alarm installation order can be issued. The building owner or resident would have to comply within five days or face a misdemeanor charge, punishable up to 10 days in jail or a fine of up to $1,000 or both.

“No one will be knocking on your door to see if you have the smoke alarms,” said Senior Deputy State Fire Marshal Oliver Alkire, “but it’s a good idea to make the upgrade. Code enforcement officials and fire safety inspectors will enforce the law for remodeled or newly built homes.”

According to the Office of the State Fire Marshal, two-thirds of all home fire deaths nationally occur in homes with either no smoke alarm or no working smoke alarm, mainly because of missing or disconnected batteries.

Smoke alarms should be placed on every level of the home and outside sleeping areas, such as a hallway leading to bedrooms. It is also recommended to place them inside each bedroom to allow sound sleepers to be alerted if smoke begins to enter the room.

Alkire noted that the sealed-battery devices are appropriate only where battery-only smoke alarms presently exist — or in houses that don’t currently have smoke alarms. He said it’s not appropriate to remove wired-in smoke alarms and replace them with any type of battery-only device.

The newer detectors include a lithium battery and are more expensive than a traditional detector with a 9-volt battery. A check of one retailer’s website shows one model of a 10-year detector costing $36.97, compared to $11.97 for a 9-volt battery-powered smoke detector made by the same manufacturer.

“These devices are a bit more expensive than we are used to paying, but the cost savings from not having to purchase batteries over a 10-year period reflects the savings,” said Gardiner. “But the real saving is that of a life.”

Some jurisdictions have programs where residents can get free fire alarms. For instance, residents of Baltimore City can call 311, and the Fire Department will deliver and install free detectors, according to department spokeswoman Blair Skinner.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Michel Elben contributed to this article.

dohl@capgaznews.com

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