Mom makes smoke detectors her life's mission after losing her daughter in a fatal fire

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - Terri Jackson can’t move very far in her Overland Park, Kansas home without running into a memory of her daughter Taylor. The 8-year-old girl whom she affectionately nicknamed “Bug” shares her infectious smile in every photograph.

“She was an angel here on earth, just as she is an angel in Heaven now,” Terri said.

Taylor has been gone a year and a half now, but Terri’s pain is still all too real. It seems like it was yesterday.

October 1, 2011 was a Saturday. Like many Saturdays, Taylor had plans with her best friend just a few doors down from their duplex.

“She asked her to come over and spend the night like she had tons of times," Terri explained.

But this would be the last time. Terri, recovering from surgery, was spending the evening with some friends when she got the news.

“I just got a call saying there's been an accident, they're taking her to the hospital. I didn't quite understand what was going on or the extent, until I got to the hospital,” she said

Terri actually arrived at the same time as the ambulance. She knew something was seriously wrong when she saw them doing CPR.

Everyone made it out alive, expect Taylor. The 3rd grader from Apache Elementary School was gone.

“The fire broke out,” she said slowly. “An electrical fire in the attic. Her friend couldn't wake her up. She went downstairs to try and find her mom, and got her mom and got some other neighbors. And by the time they…they just couldn't make it."

Devastating news for Terri made worse when she learned the home had no working smoke alarms.

“Not something you expect when you send your child to someone's house to spend the night,” she exclaimed.

Terri learned just how deadly smoke can be. She was told Taylor had become disoriented, something hard for her to comprehend.

“The duplex she was staying in was set up exactly like ours!” Terri explained. “I mean floor plan to the T. So, smoke can overcome.”

Fire, smoke and the importance of smoke detectors is a lesson shared by every fire department in every city. Trisha Roberts is the Public Education Specialist with the Overland Park Fire Department.

“I think there's not a program out there that I don't talk about smoke alarms. Even to our little bitty kids, I'm talking about smoke alarms,” Roberts said.

There is a common misconception that all smoke alarms are created equal. There are actually three different types sold in stores.

Some people may not have the protection in their homes that they think they do.

“We like the dual sensing smoke alarms better, because it protects you from two different fires,” Roberts said. “And in a fire, every second counts.”

The alarms are based on two different technologies. Photoelectric alarms detect smoldering fires faster. Those are the ones that produce heavy smoke.

However, the alarm found in most homes uses Ionization technology best for fast flaming fires. Dual sensing smoke alarms combine the two technologies.

To show you just how different they are, we partnered with our fellow Scripps stations for a test. We bought two brands of each one, numbered them and put them to the test in a vacant home. Firefighters started a smoldering fire in the living room.

Four minutes after the first sign of smoke, the first alarm sounds, a Photoelectric alarm. The second Photoelectric alarm sounds 51 seconds later. The Dual technology alarms follow.

The Ionization alarms used in 90 percent of homes remained silent for an additional 9.2 minutes after our first alarm sounded. That is more than 13 minutes after our first signs of smoke.

The Overland Park Fire Department recommends both technologies, noting that when there is a fire, every second counts.

“Fire doubles in size every 30 seconds. Some studies are now showing that it might even be faster than that,” Roberts explained. “It's just a matter of seconds. You need to get out of your house as quickly as possible.”

Today Terri Jackson encourages parents to talk fire safety with other parents, especially if their little ones are spending the night elsewhere.

“Check to make sure their smoke detectors are working,” she said. “Ask if they have a fire safety, fire evacuation plan.”

She also created a Facebook campaign: "Taylor Your Home 4 Safety." It won't bring Taylor back, but she says a few simple questions could save another family from losing their child.

“A lot of people think about asking are there guns, you know, is the alcohol put away? Drugs? Anything? But you don't think about a smoke detector Hey, have you checked it? Have you changed your batteries?” she said.


-- Buying the right type of smoke alarm --

To understand the types of smoke detection technologies, you have to understand there are two types of fires. Slow, smoldering fires are heavy in smoke, while fast moving fires are heavy in flames.

“One might be like a cigarette that falls between the cushions of a sofa. That might be more like a slow, smoldering fire,” explained Trisha Roberts, Public Education Specialist with the Overland Park Fire Department. “And a fast, flaming fire might be like grease catching fire on the stove and taking off quickly.”

There are two types of smoke detectors: Ionization technology and photoelectric technology. Each works better in detecting a specific type of fire.

Ionization – fast moving fires

This is the smoke detector commonly found in the majority of homes. While it is designed to detect and warn you of a fast, flaming fire, a Scripps test found it is not as efficient in the event of a slow, smoldering fire. In our test, the Ionization technology took 9 minutes and 12 seconds longer to sound an alarm.

Photoelectric – slow moving fires with lots of smoke

This smoke detector is designed to detect slow moving smoke traveling through your home from the ignition point of a fire. Since smoke is the leading cause of death in a fire, this increases your chances of getting out alive.

Dual Sensing

This smoke alarm is a combination of both the Ionization and Photoelectric technologies in one unit. This is the recommendation of most major fire departments, including the City of Overland Park.

Firefighters say any smoke alarm is better than no smoke alarm. They recommend that you install dual sensing smoke detectors in your home. Having both types of technology, in good working order, in the rights locations, increases your chances of survival.

To choose the right product, look for a large “I” on the package to denote Ionization. A “P” means Photoelectirc. If you already have working Ionization smoke alarms, you can add additional Photoelectric units to protect your family. If you are installing new ones, dual sensing smoke detectors are recommended.

“We like the dual sensing smoke alarms better, because it protects you from two different kinds of fires,” said Roberts. “And in a fire, every second counts. So you want the earliest notification possible.”

So why do they make two different kinds of smoke alarms?  We contacted First Alert and Kidde, the makers of the most popular brands.  Each company says it is to keep consumers safe from the two different types of fires.

Like most major fire associations around the country, they encourage you to install both types of smoke alarms in your home, or a dual-sensing smoke alarm.

The First Alert website says:  “For maximum protection, use both types of technology on each level and in every bedroom of your home.”

Kidde also recommends both types of technologies on its website.

Fire safety experts also recommend to test your smoke alarms monthly and replace batteries every six months. Some detectors are hard-wired and run on your home’s electricity, but must have a battery for backup when the power goes out.

Smoke detectors should be installed on every level of your home, outside sleeping areas and in every bedroom. The best location is 4-6 inches away from walls and corners.

Finally, it is important to note that smoke alarms are not made to last forever. They have a ten year life. Even if they still sound a test alarm, fire departments and manufacturers recommend you replace smoke detectors every decade.

Safety experts advise to check the manufacture date on the back of the alarm. If your alarm does not have a date, chances are it is over ten years old and should be replaced.

“It’s such a simple thing. They don’t cost that much. Even the dual sensing smoke alarm might be a little more expensive, but you’re talking under $20,” Roberts noted. “And for a life insurance policy, it’s going to last you 10 years. That’s pretty sweet.”

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