Dateline   |  March 25, 2013

Smoke Detectors, Part 1

NBC News' Jeff Rossen reports on consumer smoke detectors, testing their effectivenes in various situations. 

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> it happened. when you get yourself in such a desperate place that you feel like that's the only option you have, that's probably what haunts me most.

>> how well do you know your friends? your co-workers? your neighbors?

>> on the surface, everything looks great.

>> jason brown was a former eagle scout , a mormon missionary . the kind of guy you'd expect to fit in anywhere. anywhere expect the f.b.i.'s ten most-wanted list.

>> you can see the smirk on jason's face in that photo.

>> tonight, join the hunt for the suspected killer that could be the boy next door.

>> i don't think i've ever seen anybody like this.

>> did you believe he was capable of doing something like this?

>> chris hansen with "the fugitive."

>>> also, tonight, hiding in plain sight. surprises in your very own home. the products you use every day. do you know what kind of chemicals they might contain?

>> they were literally pre-dluted.

>> some scientists say the risk from chemicals is unknown. now, "dateline" tests her home, her body and her children.

>>> and smoke detectors . will yours work when you need it?

>> this could be a real fire right now.

>> plus, natalie morales tells us how hackers can use your own information to wreak havoc on your online life. tonight, what you may not know about what's in your home. 3 f2 los hackers como pueden usar su a deadly fire in your home. the smoke detector was supposed to give you and your family the crucial time you need to escape. but as testing reveals, in certain fires, they may not work in time. here's jeff lawson.

>> it's the piece of plastic we all count on. in a fire, your smoke alarm could mean the difference between life and death . but here's something you may not know. some alarms may not work fast enough to save you and your family. just ask amanda deputy. she always thought her smoke alarms would go off in a fire.

>> we put fresh batteries in the smoke detectors . we push the test button. both the upstairs and downstairs units were functioning.

>> but one winter night in 2007 , amanda woke up to a room filled with smoke.

>> and i gasped and i realized the room was way too black.

>> her house was on fire. with five kids fast asleep, four of them upstairs, amanda panicked.

>> my first thought is the four people that i have upstairs. i want to make sure that they're not scared to death. that they're safe.

>> but it was too late. the fire too intense. amanda 's 9-1-1 call was heartbreaking.

>> i have four children dead in a house. the building is incinerated.

>> as amanda grieved the loss of four children, she realized none of the smoke alarms in her home had sounded during the fire.

>> i knew they worked. and then, when it was time, they never went off.

>> so why didn't they? the answer, according to experts, may come down to a simple, frightening truth. they say the most common alarms on the market, the type in nine out of ten homes today, sometimes fail in certain fires.

>> when i go to a store to buy a smoke detector , i assume it's going to sound when there's smoke.

>> that's a reasonable assumption, but it's wrong.

>> don russel is a scientist at texas a&m and has been testing smoke alarms for two decades. he says the most popular smoke alarms have a serious safety flaw. they run on something called ionization technology . it works well in detecting fast flames, but can be slower at detecting smoky, smoldering fires. the kind that often strike while you sleep.

>> any of the smoke detectors you buy at a big box store will not sound in the next fire you're going to have in your house.

>> that's frightening.

>> very scary. and that's why people die every year because of this problem.

>> and you're about to see just how scary that can be. we had dr. russel set up a demonstration at the fire training field at texas a&m . first, he placed three ionization detectors, the kind most of us have in a room with a couch. next, firefighters set a slow, smoky fire using a soldering iron . we are watching on monitors outside. firefighters say every second counts to get your family out. but watch. the room is filling with smoke and the smoke detectors still haven't gone off. it's been 30 minutes .

>> and the smoke is all the way to where the smoke detectors are. and we still don't have any alert from the smoke detectors .

>> finally, at 36 minutes --

>> we do have a smoke detector going off.

>> minutes later, the other two go off. just as the couch erupts in flames. remember, this is the type of smoke alarm you probably have in your home.

>> it's way too late. it's too dangerous. you couldn't get out of that room reliablely.

>> but there's another technology out there that experts say gives you better warning in smaller fires. it's called a photo detector . it goes off much sooner in smoky fires. watch what happens when dr. russel sets up another demonstration. this time, with a photo electric next to those three ionization. with barely any smoke in the room, 17 minutes in, the photo electric sounds the alarm.

>> photo electric is telling us you've got a fire. get out of the house.

>> as more time passes , toxic smoke is overtaking the room. in fact, it takes another 21 minutes before any ionization detectors go off. the firefighters at the testing facility are stunned.

>> all i could think about was my own family and my kids trying to get out in that. and if i would have relied on ionization, my family probably wouldn't make it out.

>> photoelectric technology has been around for decades. and while the leading smoke detector companies do make photoelectric alarms, they still make most of their products without that technology .

>> i think it's probably a business decision.

>> the ionization detectors cost less money to make than a photoelectric?

>> that is correct, sir.

>> the companies tell us they all provide adequate escape time and meet government safety standards . but russel says those standards for kpaeb companies should be striblgter.

>> they will only respond when there is government pressure to do so.

>> we went to the government agency overseeing the project. arthur lee is a senior engineer there and told us the current standards work just fine.

>> why not tell these companies to make sure to get that photoelectric technology so you're covered. completely.

>> because both technologies are working. in saving lives.

>> with all due respect, we know of several cases where people say the smoke alarm just did not go off.

>> and those cases, they need to practice a fire escape plan.

>> but if the smoke detector didn't go off and the house is full of smoke by the time it does, what does an escape plan do?

>> it helps them escape better when the smoke alarm eventually goes off.

>> while ionization technology works well in some fires, experts at the industry say it's best to have both technologies in your home. you can even buy a dual detector. but it's harder to find and more expensive. of course, having any smoke alarm is better than none at all. but even with the best technology , your family still may not be as safe as you think.

>> that sound is piercing. so why aren't these kids waking