Fire Fighting in Canada

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NFPA Impact: Alarming news dictates 2021 FPW theme

July 12, 2021
By Laura King


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It was during the first lockdown in early 2020 that NFPA’s education team started to hear from teachers who recognized the perpetual chirping of smoke alarms in students’ homes during Zoom or Google Classroom sessions.

Remarkably, the teachers told us, the chirping would continue for days, even weeks. This message was communicated to NFPA repeatedly, and teachers were astounded by the fact that folks either didn’t know what to do about the chirp, or chose to ignore it.

Teachers, of course, are NFPA’s eyes and ears in communities across Canada and the United Sates; they are well-versed in NFPA’s Learn Not to Burn program and they know, and teach students, what to do when the smoke alarm beeps or chirps.

It’s horrifying to think that people ignore a chirping alarm because they don’t have the tools to deal with it – a ladder to reach it, the ability to go to a store and buy batteries, the $80 to replace a 10-year-old combination smoke/CO alarm, a decent landlord. It’s even more horrifying to realize that for many occupants, the chirp eventually becomes white noise that no one hears anymore, leaving families unprotected from fire or CO. 

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Generally, at the NFPA, the process of establishing the Fire Prevention Week theme is lengthy, extensive and collaborative. For 2021, it was a no-brainer: Learn the Sounds of Fire Safety.

As much as we like to think fire safety is simple, messaging about smoke and CO alarms, the sounds they emit, and what to do when the alarms activate, is complex.

We’ve tried to simplify the messaging for Fire Prevention Week 2021.

My favourite: Hear the beep, get on your feet! In other words, when the smoke or CO alarm sounds, occupants need to take action – get up and get out, and then call 911.

My second favourite: hear a chirp, make a change: a chirping alarm means the battery, or the entire alarm, must be replaced.

Replacing batteries or expired alarms is a challenge for many people. Consider the barriers to change: What kind of batteries are required? Where do I get them? How do I know if it’s the battery/batteries or the alarm unit? How do I read that tiny expiry date on the side of the alarm on my ceiling? How do I turn off the beeping sound that just won’t stop if I can’t reach the alarm to take it down?  

Truly, we don’t make it easy.

What’s more, technology is evolving, and it’s our job to explain to people whether they should install photoelectric or ionization alarms, combination smoke/CO alarms, talking alarms that we know are more effective than just a beeping alarm, or new multi-sensor alarms? Did you know there are new alarms that can tell the difference between burned food and smouldering upholstery? (Visit smokealarm.ul.org for great resources!)

All this is why the NFPA and fire departments across North America need to take time and be specific in our messaging and repeat, repeat, repeat. Telling people to change batteries when we spring forward and fall back is relevant only to occupants of older homes with simple smoke alarms. What are we telling people whose homes have interconnected alarms, 10-year-sealed alarms, strobes and bed shakers? We need to work at our messaging, use NFPA’s Education Messaging Desk Reference (www.nfpa.org – educational messages), be specific, and be relentless.

For FPW 2021, you can find our messages at www.firepreventionweek.org – social media cards, ideas for programs and outreach, event flyers, press releases (in English and French), plus a Home Safety Action Plan, children’s activity and colouring sheets, videos, escape plans, lesson plans, tip sheets, and messages for people who are deaf or have hearing loss, or people with other physical challenges.

Our focus for #FPW 2021 is these messages – they’re not sexy or fun; they’re practical and potentially life-saving: 

  • When a smoke alarm or CO alarm sounds, immediately exit the home.
  • If your alarm chirps, batteries may be low and need to be replaced. If the alarm continues to chirp after batteries are replaced, or the alarm is more than 10 years old, replace the alarm.
  • Test smoke and CO alarms monthly. Press and hold the test button.
  • If someone in your household is deaf or hard of hearing, install bed shaker and strobe alarms.
  • Know the sounds of smoke alarm and CO alarms – three beeps for smoke alarms; four beeps for carbon monoxide alarms. 

We’re grateful to the teachers who heard the chirp and took action; now, it’s up to us to make change.


Laura King is NFPA’s public education representative for Canada, and the former editor of Fire Fighting in Canada. Contact her at canadacrr@nfpa.org and follow her on Twitter at @LauraKingNFPA.


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