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Council advances smoke-detector requirement

April 24, 2014

Indianapolis homeowners and landlords would have to buy smoke detectors with non-removable, non-replaceable batteries under a proposal that’s advancing through the City-County Council with bipartisan support.

The Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee voted 9-1 in favor of the proposal Wednesday night. The ordinance would apply to houses and townhouses, but it won’t apply to apartment buildings unless the Indiana Fire and Building Commission approves the change. (The change to the battery requirements doesn’t apply to hard-wired smoke alarms.)

A smoke detector manufacturer, Kidde, lobbied heavily for the ordinance, but the company's attorney, Faegre Baker Daniels partner Murray Clark, told the committee that the changes wouldn’t give his client a competitive advantage.

Clark noted that competitor First Alert had sent a letter to the council in support of the proposal, which he said was “kind of like Pepsi supporting something Coke is doing.”

A number of manufacturers offer detectors with tamper-proof batteries that they claim will last 10 years. The new battery technology is more expensive, but supporters said it’s worthwhile because it might prevent people from disabling smoke detectors because of false alarms or low-battery chirps.

Indianapolis has seen 29 fire fatalities since 2009, and in 17 of those incidents, the smoke detector wasn’t working, committee Chairwoman Mary Moriarty Adams said. In the remaining 12, there was no smoke detector present.

A long-serving Democrat, Adams authored the city’s current ordinance requiring smoke detectors in all dwellings. She and Republican Councilor Ben Hunter co-sponsored the proposal on new battery technology.

“Generally, I am a get-out-of-my-way, I-can-live-life-better-than-government-can-tell-me-to-live-life kind of guy,” Republican Councilor Aaron Freeman said. “If we save one life, it’s worth it. If we don’t put one fireman in danger, it’s worth it.”

Freeman noted that the proposal had been amended so that building owners won’t be responsible for installing the new battery technology until smoke detectors need to be replaced.

The sole "no" vote on the proposal was by Republican Christine Scales, who raised a litany of objections, from the proposal’s drafting by a manufacturer’s lobbyist to the lack of language on sensor technology.  

Scales said she’s worried that the ordinance will prompt people to install long-lasting detectors with the wrong type of sensor. Ionization sensors have proven ineffective at detecting smoldering, smoky fires, which are also the leading cause of fire-related death.

Scales pushed for language that would require dwellings to have at least one detector with a photoelectric sensor, which detects smoldering fires more quickly. Various fire-safety authorities recommend using both types of technology to detect both fast-flaming kitchen fires and smoldering fires, which often start in bedrooms or elsewhere in a home.

Adams said adding a requirement for photoelectric sensors isn’t practical because the technology changes quickly, and then the ordinance would have to be revised every few years. Under the current proposal, homeowners are free to buy the right mix of smoke detectors for their homes, she said.

The Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors opposes the proposal because it could lead to two different standards for single-family residences and apartment buildings, Government Affairs Director Chris Pryor said.

Pryor doesn’t think the state building commission will approve the city’s ordinance because a similar proposal was introduced to the Legislature in 2012 and went nowhere.

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