Smoke/CO Detectors Are Hazardous to Seniors

Smoke/CO Detectors Are Hazardous to Seniors

© David Burton 2017

Changing an Alarm

     My younger daughter lives in a nearby community with our two grandchildren. My wife and I were at her house when the fire and Carbon Monoxide alarm went off. There were shrill horn blasts from the alarm and repetitive extremely loud announcements to “Evacuate, Evacuate!”. The family dog was frantic with all the noise and had to be let out of the house. Unfortunately, most of the rooms in our daughter’s house are vaulted, meaning that the alarms were more than 15-feet above the floors and inaccessible without a fairly tall ladder. We ended up having to call the fire department to come and silence the alarms. The cause of all this was depleted batteries that required replacement. Although the alarms were hard-wired, they still had back-up batteries that needed periodic replacement. My daughter was unaware that hardwired fire and Carbon Monoxide alarms had these back-up batteries. She now dutifully climbs up the tall ladder needed in her vaulted-ceiling home to change the alarm batteries annually.

     My wife and I live in a high-rise condominium with two hard-wired combination fire and Carbon Monoxide alarms that are ceiling-mounted. About a month ago, one of the alarms began to sound every minute or two. I got out our step-stool and climbed up the few steps until I could stretch out (all 6-foot, 1-inch of me), to remove the old batteries and replace them with new ones. I did this even though I am one of those conscientious individuals who replaces the batteries in their alarms every year and I had done so 6-months previously.

     But, the alarm kept going off. I contacted the condominium maintenance person, who came up to our unit, put in another set of batteries and checked the unit’s wiring when the alarm continued to sound. He concluded that a new alarm was required even though a new alarm was supposedly installed when we moved into our unit some 3 years previous. I drove to the local hardware store, purchased a replacement alarm, returned to our condominium and had the maintenance person replace the combination fire and Carbon Monoxide detector. The new unit functioned properly.

     A little over a week later, the same sequence of events occurred with the second combination alarm: the alarm began to ring every minute or two; I climbed up on the step-stool; changed batteries to no effect; called the maintenance person; and, once again ended up replacing the combination fire and Carbon Monoxide alarm which, once more, solved the problem.

     Now, the problem is, I am over 80 years old, and, as with many seniors, have lost much of my sense of balance as I have grown older. Consequently, climbing up a ladder or a step-stool is not one of my favorite activities these days. It is actually dangerous. Another elderly friend of ours had recently suffered a broken wrist when she fell while trying to quiet a fire/CO alarm in her home.

     The problem is that fire alarms and Carbon Monoxide alarms are normally ceiling-mounted. Many seniors like me develop balance problems with age and climbing step-stools or ladders to reach these ceiling-mounted alarms can be hazardous. What is a senior to do when a fire or Carbon Monoxide detector begins to false- alarm at 2-o’clock in the morning?

     Many new alarms are designed for 10-year life and don’t need battery replacement – after 10 years, you just throw away the alarm with its battery and get a new one. This is actually less expensive than replacing a battery every 6-months or every year. But, some communities, like the town in Massachusetts where I live, have outdated codes that prohibit such alarms in multi-unit dwellings. So, seniors are stuck with the older alarms with recommendations for battery changes six-months or every year.

     One way to eliminate the problem of seniors injuring themselves when attempting to change the batteries in their smoke and/or Carbon Monoxide detectors is for local fire departments to offer to perform that duty for them. In one example of such a program, here is what Fairfield, Connecticut offers:

“Please let us know if you would like the Fire Department to come out and change your smoke detector batteries for you. Senior citizens can be added to our list and will be contacted to schedule a time that is convenient for you. Please call {XXX-XXX-XXXX} or email Senior SDS program to be added to the list. Please include your name, address, phone number and number of smoke detectors present.” (Ref. 1)

     In Australia, there is a government program called SABRE (Smoke Alarm and Battery Replacement) for Seniors. This “program assists seniors and people with a disability who are vulnerable in the case of a fire because they are not able to install and/or maintain their smoke alarms.
     “Firefighters can visit the residence at an arranged time to install a battery-operated smoke alarm or replace existing smoke alarm batteries at no cost. The resident must supply the battery-operated smoke alarm or batteries. Firefighters can provide home fire safety advice while visiting premises.
     “Residents who have limited domestic support (no access to family, friends or neighbours who can assist) and are living in their own or privately rented home . . . are eligible for the program. Examples are:

  • frail aged people (aged over 65),
  • people with disabilities, or
  • people who are already receiving community assistance and services." (Ref. 2)
     Similar services are offered by commercial companies, For example, here’s an internet ad:

“Is a chirping smoke detector leaving you feeling... Frustrated?
“Ever hear that BEEP at 2:00 AM? Ever end up taking a smoke detector down to make it quiet? Ever forget to put one back up? Ever lose a good night's sleep? Ever stare up at your high ceilings wondering how you are ever going to replace the battery in that smoke detector without falling off a teetering ladder?
“Smoke detector batteries should all be replaced at the same time, every 6 months. This ensures your detectors have a fresh battery and are ready in case of an emergency. It also prevents that awful low battery chirp from ruining your day or night.
“Joe Filter will replace all of your smoke alarm batteries in your home, even the hard to reach ones. Never wait for the beep again. Joe Filter will ensure that all of your batteries are changed during the same service call and kept on the same battery replacement schedule.
“Be prepared in case of the unthinkable.”
(Ref. 3)

     Such services are fine in terms of scheduled battery changes, but what is a senior citizen to do when the smoke or CO alarm starts sounding in the middle of the night?

     One possible solution is to provide remote controls for these detectors, that would be similar to television remote controls. This would allow silencing of the alarms until a service person could be called to either swap out old batteries or to replace a malfunctioning unit. Such remote controls could conceivably be designed to validate that the detector was either malfunctioning or that the batteries were depleted before shutting down the alarm. The remote control could also be designed to turn the alarm back on after, say, 6 hours in case the person forgot to have the detector serviced or replaced.

     Still one more thought on the subject. How about using the telephone to dial up the offending alarm, check to see if it’s functioning and/or silence it? These days, smart phones are used for just about every other purpose.

     Another fix is for all smoke and CO alarms to come with two prominently color-coded large buttons: one that tests the alarm and the second which shuts off the alarm. Senior citizens and other handicapped individuals who should not be climbing ladders can be provided, free of charge, with telescoping poles to push these buttons.

     In these days of high technology and entrepreneurship, there must be any number of inventors out there who can come up with inexpensive and practical solutions to this problem that seniors and others face. Offering a prize for the best idea should stir the inventive juices of many.

     Fire and smoke alarms in the home are clearly essential. 3 out of 5 home fire deaths result from fires in properties without working smoke alarms. 38% of home fire deaths result from fires in which no smoke alarms are present. The risk of dying in a home fire is cut in half in homes with working smoke alarms. [4]

     While smoke and Carbon Monoxide detectors are essential safety features in every house and home, for senior citizens and many others, they can become a safety hazard in and of themselves when step-stools or ladders are required to service them. There needs to be means provided for quieting them and/or servicing them whenever they false-alarm without requiring senior citizens to physically access them, i.e., to climb up a ladder or step stool.

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  1. Information for Senior Citizens,, Accessed 7 September 2017.
  2. Smoke Alarm and Battery Replacement for Seniors, -battery-replacement-for-seniors, Accessed 7 September 2017.
  3. Smoke Detector Battery Replacement Service,, Accessed 7 September 2017.
  4. Smoke alarm outreach materials,, Accessed 7 September 2017.


  8 September 2017 {Article 305; Whatever_58}    
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