Residential fire deaths lead the total number of deaths caused by fire in the United States. According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), about 85 percent of all U.S. fire deaths in 2009 occurred in homes, and on average, eight people died in U.S. home fires every day. Most victims of fires die from smoke or toxic gases and not from burns.

It is interesting to note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most residential fires occur during the winter months. The statistic that may resound with the contractor is that almost all homes have at least one smoke alarm, but almost two-thirds of reported home fire deaths in 2003–2007 resulted from fires in homes with no working smoke alarms.

Chapter 29 of NFPA 72 2010, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, contains the requirements for residential smoke and heat alarms and residential fire-warning systems. Note the chapter’s stated purpose: “Fire-warning equipment for residential occupancies shall provide a reliable means to notify the occupants of the presence of a threatening fire and the need to escape to a place of safety before such escape might be impeded by untenable conditions in the normal path of egress.”

The installation and application of residential fire alarm equipment—multiple—station smoke alarms or a complete fire alarm system—falls squarely on the shoulders of the contractor.

There are required locations for smoke detectors or smoke alarms to ensure compliance with the code. For example, NFPA 72 2010 states, “Where required by other governing laws, codes, or standards for a specific type of occupancy, approved single and multiple-station smoke alarms shall be installed as follows:
1. “In all sleeping rooms and guest rooms
2. “Outside of each separate dwelling unit sleeping area, within 21 ft. (6.4 m) of any door to a sleeping room, with the distance measured along a path of travel
3. “On every level of a dwelling unit, including basements
4. “On every level of a residential board and care occupancy (small facility), including basements and excluding crawl spaces and unfinished attics
5. “In the living area(s) of a guest suite
6. “In the living area(s) of a residential board and care occupancy (small facility)”

In addition, the code requires that all points on the ceiling have a smoke alarm within a 30-foot travel distance or must have an equivalent of one smoke alarm per 500 square feet of floor area. A contractor evaluates this by dividing the total interior square footage of the floor area per level by 500 square feet. The annex clarifies this, stating the requirements do not preclude the installation of smoke alarms on walls in accordance with the code. It also states that “some building configurations, such as division of rooms and open foyers or great rooms, dictate that alarms be located so that they do not cover distinctly separate 500 square foot areas but rather provide overlapping coverage relative to this spacing requirement.”

One of the new sections of the 2010 edition relates to residents with hearing impairments. The code states, “since hearing deficits are often not apparent, the responsibility for advising the appropriate person(s) of the existence of this deficit shall be that of the party with hearing loss.”

While the contractor is not required to make the decision for hearing-impaired individuals in the residential environment, the code requires that you ensure those with this impairment will be notified in the event of a fire condition.

The code covers two situations that you may encounter: individuals with a mild to severe hearing loss and those with profound hearing loss.

The code now requires the use of a new, low-frequency notification appliance to notify those with mild to severe hearing loss. The appliance must comply with the following:
A. The alarm signal shall be a square wave or provide equivalent awakening ability.
B. The wave shall have a fundamental frequency of 520 Hz +/- 10 percent.
C. The minimum sound level at the pillow shall be 75 dBA, 15 dB above the average ambient sound level, or 5 dB above the maximum sound level with a duration of at least 60 seconds, whichever is greatest.
For those with a profound hearing loss, the code requires the use of tactile notification appliances. These appliances must meet the performance requirements of ANSI/UL 1971, Standard for Signaling Devices for the Hearing Impaired, or equivalent.

As in the previous edition, signals from notification appliances are not required to be synchronized.

In most jurisdictions, smoke alarms are required for all new construction based on the building code in force. There are also jurisdictions that require, through legislation, all existing homes to be protected.
The above requirements in the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code represent just a few of the ways a professional contractor can address the fire alarm requirements encountered in residential applications regardless of why the smoke alarms are required.


MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a past chair of the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates, Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office. He can be reached at wmoore@haifire.com.