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Smoke Screen, Part 2 - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

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Smoke Screen, Part 2

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Barre, Vermont - October 12, 2007

Rudy Polli is lucky to be alive.

"This was really serious," said Polli.

Last week Polli woke up in the middle of the night, thinking a streetlight had disturbed his sleep, but then what he saw in his bedroom shocked him.

"It looked like there was smoke there and I thought that doesn't look right and I got up and the house was full of smoke."

"It did cross my mind why isn't the smoke detector working?"

Polli escaped and called the Barre City Fire department. Turns out, his furnace was malfunctioning, spewing dangerous smoke throughout the house.

But he could not understand why his operating smoke detectors, didn't give him the warning he was counting on.

"Boy I thought I was protected and I really wasn't."

It was puzzling to Polli, but not to Barre City Firefighters.

They learned first hand about a diference in smoke detector technology two years ago, when a mother and her four children died in a fire.

The Stoltz Foster family, like Rudy Polli and 90% of homeowners, relied on an ionization detector.

It's designed to go off quickly in fast flaming fires. But tests have shown it does not respond as well to slow burning smoky fires. Instead a detector with photoelectic technology sounds the alarm faster in a smoldering fire.

"I went home the day I heard about this and bought some photo-electrics, beause you can't play with your kids and your families life," said Matt Cetin with the Barre Fire Department.

Barre City Fire Firefighters conducted a detector test for Channel 3. They lit a smoldering fire - like one sparked by a lit cigarette or electrical problem, to see which alarm would sound off. Slow burning fires are the deadliest kind of fire, often burning for hours while victims sleep.

The first one to go off was the photoelectric.  

Barre City Firefighters have done this test 1/2 a dozen times, with the same results.

The photoelectric detector beats the ionization detector by at least 20 minutes, precious time that could mean the difference between life and death.

"We can do it time and time again.  They are not the same they are different," explained Deputy Fire Chief Russell Ashe.

Despite the differences, fire codes do not require people to have photoelectric detectors.

"The Barre tests were very convincing," said Burlington Fire Assistant Fire Marshal Tom Middleton.

The Barre fire tests prompted the state division of fire safety to propose a change in the fire code. The Vermont legislature will review the photoelectric detector requirement next year.

"Protection can be enhanced by putting a mixture of detectors in the spaces and I suspect in the future fire code may require that," said Middleton.

The National Fire Protection Association, is also considering changing its code, but that could take years. The message about the difference in detectors has been slow to spread - in part because not everyone is convinced.

"Certainly their work was very valuable and it spurred our discussion and our thinking about the subject but in order for the codes to be changed on the national level there needs to be a bit more scientific research," said Middleton.

"This is the one the fire department installed," said Polli pointing to a detector.

Rudy Polli doesn't need scientific research. He now relies on a combination photoelectric/ionization detector.  And says it makes him feel safer.

Barre City Firefighters say in the past two years, they've responded to six other smoldering fires where the ionization detectors did not go off.  So far none have been deadly, but they worry it's only a matter of time. This issue is getting more attention. Just a few weeks ago the International Association of Fire Chiefs endorsed using combination photoelectric/ionization detectors. And two of the Barre City Firefighters very involved in this, Russell Ashe and Matt Cetin, are now part of a new committee with the National Fire Protection Association looking into the detector issue.  But both say any change in fire codes will take time. So for now it's up to homeowners to decide how best to protect themselves.

Kristin Carlson - WCAX News

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