Marc McGinn

Fire Department Chief Marc McGinn
Speaking to the Albany Ca, City Council

I began my career with the Albany Fire Department on August 1, 1978. Promoted to Captain on April 1, 1982 and was appointed Chief of the Albany Fire Department April 12, 1993. With mentoring from Richard Patton, F.P.E. (Fire Protection Engineer) and Adrian Butler, Co-founder of the World Fire Safety Foundation, I began fighting to outlaw the usage of ionization smoke detectors (which are flame detectors and not smoke detectors) and on July 19, 2010 spoke to the City Council of Albany, CA regarding the problem of ionization sensors, even when combined with a photoelectric sensor in the same unit as they still false alarm, leading to people disconnecting them.

Inspired by Albany Fire Chief Marc McGinn's passion and four years of research, City Council members voted unanimously Monday night (July 19, 2010) to pass Ordinance No. 2010-06- An Ordinance of the Albany City Council Amending Chapter XI, Fire Prevention of the Albany Municipal Code to Include Regulations for Smoke Alarms and Smoke Detectors. to require a somewhat uncommon type of smoke alarm in many homes and businesses in the city from this point forward.

In doing so, Albany became the first city in California, officials said, to take a public stand on the importance of photoelectric-only alarms, which use a light source to detect the presence of smoke, in saving lives. Ionization alarms, which use a different trigger, are much more common.

Albany joins the state of Vermont in requiring photoelectric alarms. Vermont has banned, from new buildings, ionization alarms, which use a small amount of radioactive material to detect invisible particles generated by flame and are found in 95 percent of homes in America. Massachusetts, Iowa and Maine require the use of either photoelectric alarms, which can be combined with traditional ionization alarms, or alarms with both kinds of sensors.

One other California city, Cathedral City just southeast of Palm Springs, approved an ordinance that went into effect in 2008 that required dual sensor alarms, two city officials said Tuesday.

The Albany ordinance requires the use of photoelectric-only alarms and detectors in a range of situations, such as with new construction, in multi-family dwellings or with certain home improvement projects.

"We've been handcuffed with ionization smoke alarms," McGinn said. "From here on out, it will be an all-out assault to get rid of them. The Fire Department will have a door-to-door campaign to get people to upgrade to photoelectric. It's a huge undertaking. But, for me, it's a race against the clock to make this change. I could never live with myself if something tragic happened because of an ionization alarm."

Ionization alarms are by far the most common, McGinn said, largely because they are cheaper by roughly $10. (Photoelectric alarms sell for $15 to $20, while ionization alarms sell for $10 to $15, he said.)

But ionization alarms are much more responsive to flame than they are to smoke. And by the time a fire has engulfed a structure in flames, McGinn explained, it's often too late to save lives – both because of the severity of a fire and because smoke inhalation could already have caused death.

Visually the two alarms are hard to distinguish. On the back, one has an "I" or a radioactive signal to indicate "ionization"; photoelectric alarms have a "P" on them.

"Otherwise, you couldn't tell the difference at the store," McGinn said at a City Council meeting earlier this month.

You could tell the difference, however, in the kitchen, as ionization alarms result in frequent "nuisance alarms" in response to smoke from the toaster or burning food while cooking. Because of this, many people disconnect these alarms to avoid being bothered.

According to a July 6 staff report on this issue, "The disconnection of smoke alarms (because of nuisance alarms) is responsible for at least 50 percent of the fire deaths in America, or 1,500 deaths per year."

(One visitor to Monday night's meeting, Dean Dennis of Ohio, said up to 22 percent of these alarms are disabled within a year because of the nuisance alarm rate. Dennis has been advocating against these alarms since 2003 after his daughter died in a fire. Her death, he believes, would have been prevented had photoelectric alarms been in place.)

Though the two alarms are hard to tell apart in the store, in an emergency their distinctions could mean the difference between life and death, say advocates for photoelectric alarms.

A high percentage of fire-related deaths, 25 to 30 percent, are caused by smoldering fires and the resulting smoke inhalation. Ionization alarms can take an average of 37 minutes longer to react to smoke than photoelectric alarms, McGinn said.

Much of the confusion about these alarms stems from the fact that both are certified as safe by Underwriters Laboratories, a company considered by many to be the gold standard for safety. The company describes itself as a "trusted resource across the globe for product safety certification and compliance solutions."

It is one of two agencies, along with the National Fire Protection Association, whose approval is required for all smoke alarms in Albany according to its Fire and Building Code.

Howard Hopper, the San Jose-based manager of regulatory services for Underwriters Laboratories, attended Monday night's meeting to insist both alarms are safe.

"Either technology is good," he said. "You don't know what kind of fire you're going to have."

An advocate for alarm manufacturer Kidde also attended the meeting to speak about the effectiveness of both alarms. Having both types, said Mikhael Skvarla of Sacramento, "is the best way to make sure you have the coverage you need."

But critics of ionization alarms dismissed these assertions.

Dennis, the Ohio father who lost his daughter in 2003, said he was "appalled" that the men had come, and said their only purpose was in protecting industry profits.

"We want to protect your kids, protect your families, protect lives," Dennis told the council, in reference to the goal of several photo electrics advocates in attendance.

Advocate Doug Turnbull, also of Ohio, flew in with Dennis to attend the Albany meeting. The two visit fire chiefs around the nation to try to explain the differences between the two types of alarms, and are working to try to have ionization alarms banned in Ohio.

Turnbull's daughter, Julie, died in April 2005 in an off-campus fire near Miami University in Oxford, OH.

From left, Richard Patton, Dean Dennis and Doug Turnbull, photoelectric alarm advocates, city council meeting, Albany Ca, July 19 2010

"The house she was in had 17 ionization alarms. Eleven were recovered.... Only one sounded," he told the council. "It was already too late. Three kids died in that fire. By the time the first one sounded, they were already dead."

Dennis met Turnbull at Julie's funeral, which he attended because of the similar circumstances between the two girls' deaths. The fathers started studying the smoke alarm issue when a Boston fire chief told them to look into it.

"We had no idea what photoelectric was," Dennis said. "We took it upon ourselves to study this issue. We probably spent 20 hours a week for two years going through thousands of pages for thousands of hours."

World-renowned fire protection engineer Richard Patton, of Citrus Heights, CA, who said he worked on the "first fire protection code ever produced," said tests done to prove the safety of ionization alarms are inherently flawed, as smolder tests done in the lab don't reflect real-life situations such as a cigarette setting a couch on fire.

"This is why we have the confusion of why the smoke detectors don't go off and fail (in actual emergencies), and why they do go off in the laboratory," he said.

Albany residents Brian Parsley, Ray Anderson and Francesco Papalia spoke in support of the chief and the ordinance, as did all members of the City Council.

Councilman Robert Lieber, a nurse, said he was surprised to feel emotional about the issue as he recalled shifts in the burn unit while working for decades in hospitals and emergency rooms.

"In a house fire, fatalities are not from burning up. They're from smoke inhalation," he said.

Vice Mayor Farid Javandel said the council needed to take a stand to protect consumers.

"The average consumer is looking for the best deal. Ionization is cheaper... we've gotta take steps to push people to use the more costly alarm. You're talking about the safety of your family. I'm not going to quibble over a few dollars," he said. "It's critical to not have alarms that are going to be deactivated or miss out on certain fires."

The new ordinance requires the use of photoelectric alarms, but allows ionization alarms to be used in conjunction with them. Dual-technology alarms, with both kinds of sensors, are prohibited in certain cases outlined in the statute.

Installation of photoelectric alarms in Albany, according to the July 19 staff report on the alarm ordinance, "would be required when structures are expanded, when renovation construction exceeds an established threshold, or when a property is sold or when a home business is established. It also would require photoelectric systems in multi-family apartments. Staff proposes that a construction value of $5,000 be established as the threshold to trigger the upgrade requirement."

All required smoke alarms and detectors "shall be replaced upon the expiration of the warranty period of the installed device." At that time, according to the ordinance, "Replacement devices must be photoelectric-only type devices."

Fire Chief Marc McGinn said he was "very proud of our City Council" and that "the right thing was done."

He said consumers could simply purchase the new alarms and screw them into the ceiling in place of existing alarms, and that the Fire Department would offer assistance to the disabled or others needing help.

For him, he said, the Albany ordinance is a first step.

"We're the only city in California to have this," he said after the meeting. "My push is to get all of California, and then all of the United States, educated on this issue."

Which kind do you have in your home? Knowing could save your life.
By Marc McGinn

Currently, there is great confusion regarding the topic of smoke alarms. There are two types of smoke alarms used to protect residents in the event of a fire; photoelectric and ionization smoke alarms - both respond differently to smoke and flame.

Ionization smoke alarms react poorly to deadly smoke but faster to flames while photoelectric alarms react much faster to smoke. Ionization alarms are present in more than 95 percent of homes in America and have a high failure rate when it comes to detecting smoke. The problem is, most deadly fires are smoldering fires and not fast flaming fires. By now, most people understand it is deadly smoke and heat that kills you before the flames even reach you. Ionization alarms should be labeled flame alarms and not smoke alarms.

An example of a fast flaming fire would be a Christmas tree fire, which certainly have claimed their share of resident's lives, but nowhere near the number of lives claimed by smoldering fires. Other fast flaming fires would be kitchen fires, which are the leading cause of residential fires, but rarely do they claim lives. I implore you to watch the videos attached to this story.

Arguably, a greater problem with the ionization alarm is the number of false alarms it renders, thus leading to residents disconnecting the alarm all together. I must include an interesting story – a couple of years ago, with my infinite knowledge, I installed a combination ionization/photoelectric smoke alarm in my living room. Because my home is not large, the house is heated by a wood burning stove. After numerous false alarms (initiated by the invisible smoke) started by my stove, I gave up using the hush button (as it did not silence long enough) and disconnected the battery and remained disconnected until I went to bed. Finally after one season, I placed the combination alarm in my bedroom (replacing the older alarm) and placed a new photoelectric alarm in my living room. Do I need to tell you the results? Not one false alarm. So my point is, how many residents (worldwide) give up and just permanently disconnect the ionization alarm and expose themselves to a potential lethal smoldering fire? Moreover, there have been many fire deaths worldwide with working ionization smoke alarms present but failed to detect smoke. Regrettably, the fire industry has yet to take an official stand to eliminate ionization smoke alarms once and for all.


Marc McGinn
(Retired from active duty April 11, 2011)

Albany Fire Chief

P.S. I urge you to immediately replace your current ionization smoke alarms that do not detect smoke, with photoelectric smoke alarms. If you have any additional questions or need assistance I welcome your phone call at
831-334-5633 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            831-334-5633      end_of_the_skype_highlighting or e-mail me at Learn more at The World Fire Safety Foundation.

Chief McGinn is spot on.

It's time to warn the public (and our Fire Fighters) that ionization smoke alarms have now been proven to be dangerously defective - before more innocent lives are needlessly lost. Watch the free film, 'Smoke Alarm Recall' at: and see the recent series of stories by CBS, 'Deadly Smoke Detectors':

Please - spread the word.

Thank you.
Adrian Butler
The World Fire Safety Foundation