Review prompts change to smoke alarm advice

A research review commissioned by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre has identified some important differences in the performance of different types of smoke alarms.

A review conducted by Victoria University for the Bushfire CRC and the CRC’s fire agency partners clearly indicates that the photoelectric type of domestic smoke alarm is more effective than the more common ionisation type of alarm at detecting smouldering fires in houses.

The Bushfire CRC has passed the preliminary results to the Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC), the peak body for fire agencies. In response, AFAC is now encouraging its members to modify the way they promote smoke alarms.

There are two common types of smoke alarms in Australia that operate on different principles – the ionisation detector responds by analysing the smoke in the air, the photoelectric detector uses a light beam to detect the airborne smoke.

The ionisation detector is the more common of the two and is generally cheaper and more readily available in shops.

The research review concludes that ionisation detectors respond faster to flaming fires while photoelectric detectors respond faster to smouldering fires. However, while the photoelectric detectors responded to flaming fires in sufficient time to allow residents to safely react, the reverse may not be true.

It has been found that ionisation detectors may not reliably respond to smouldering fires in all instances in enough time to allow for safe egress. In fact, it has fairly consistently been found that they will not.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Bushfire CRC, Kevin O’Loughlin, said the review was an important resource for fire agencies who have a statutory responsibility to advise standard’s authorities and state governments and to help educate the community.

“There is no doubt that the common ionisation smoke alarm has saved many lives in Australian homes over many years. However, this review shows that the photoelectric detector may be a superior all round domestic alarm and people should be aware of this,” he said.

The AFAC advice on smoke alarms can be found at