In the forensic engineering business we see a lot of personal injuries and deaths resulting from motor vehicle accidents and structural fires.
Automotive engineers recognized years ago that the safety of vehicle occupants could be increased by the use of seatbelts. Statistical data since seatbelts were introduced support this fact. It is easy to install seatbelts in every vehicle, but convincing occupants to war their belts is another matter. If the vehicle occupants do not comply with the law, and wear their belts, then of course they are of no use. This fact is recognized in the insurance industry, such that injured vehicle occupants who were unrestrained at the time of the accident have made a reduction for contributory negligence in the event of subrogation claims.
Newer vehicles are now being equipped with airbags, which work automatically, so that occupant compliance is no longer an issue. Of course for the airbags to work effectively, seatbelts should still be utilized, so for full protection, seatbelt compliance will still be necessary. Some vehicles are using new systems where the seatbelts are anchored to the doors, or motorized belts move into position automatically when an occupant enters a vehicle. These are attempts by the industry to solve the non-compliance issue.
Seatbelts are the great equalizer for vehicle occupants, to protect themselves from the danger of injury in the event of an accident. This is a clear example where the technology is in place, but the human factor (i.e. compliance) is lagging behind. Public education programs seem to help, but I'm sure we all know a few individuals who are still dead set against the use of seatbelts. Some people refuse to be convinced by the facts. Smoke alarms like seatbelts save lives.
The Ontario Building Code requires that smoke alarms be installed in each new dwelling unit. This would include single-family homes and apartment buildings. Smoke alarms are ceiling mounted units that detect smoke, and sound a local alarm. Smoke detectors on the otherhand are units that are ceiling mounted, detect smoke, and transmit a signal back to the central panel. The alarm function is then triggered by the panel, either on-site, off-site, or both. The building code requires that smoke alarms be wired into the building electrical system on a dedicated circuit with no switches front from the breaker box. When more than one is required in a residence, then there is a further requirement that they be interlocked so that when one activates they all activate.
Statistics clearly show that homes that are equipped with interlocked, hardwired, smoke alarms are much safer for the occupants in the event of a fire. Alarms are sounded very early in the development of a fire, allowing sufficient escape time for the occupants.
Unfortunately the building code did not always require that smoke alarms be provided in new homes. Therefore, there is a large stock of older homes and apartments which are not protected by smoke alarms. Some municipalities have passed by-laws requiring these dwelling units to be retrofitted with smoke alarms.
Many of the retrofit installations utilize battery operated smoke alarms which are not interconnected. While this is better than nothing, it is not nearly as good as the hard-wired interconnected alarms. Studies show that the bulk of the housing stock has been retrofitted with the battery operated alarms in compliance with bylaws. These same studies also show that the bulk of the housing stock has been retrofitted with battery operated alarms in compliance with bylaws. These same studies also show that maintenance on these units is poor.
There have been many fire fatalities and injuries in older homes protected by battery operated smoke alarms, where the batteries were missing or de-energized at the time they were needed. It is very easy to install these detectors, but it is also very easy to forget to maintain the detectors on an ongoing basis. In the instance where a tenant occupies the unit, it is the duty of the building owner to ensure that batteries are installed and check on a regular basis. In some cases the tenants remove batteries from the detectors to use in other electrical devices.
With smoke detectors, as in the case of seatbelts, the technology has been developed to save lives, but there is still reliance on the human element to comply particularly in terms of maintenance on battery operated smoke alarms. It if very easy to say that batteries should be changed each year, but it is very difficult to see this implemented.
The maintenance problem on smoke alarms with batteries is of such magnitude, that an argument could be made that they should no longer be allowed. By-laws should be changed to require that all smoke alarms be hard-wired and interconnected, so that they are maintenance free, and will operate when needed. This will undoubtedly increase the cost of installation, but in view of the lives that could be saved, this cost is trivial.
The industry people have recognized the dangers, and provided us with the equalizers necessary to protect us. Let's all ensure that we understand the risks we run when we opt not to use those equalizers at our disposal.
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Walters Forensic Engineering | 277 Wellington
Street West, Suite 800 | Toronto, ON M5V 3H2