Important Fire Safety Information

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Milwaukee Field Office
Suite 1380
Henry S. Reuss Federal Plaza
310 West Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53203-2289

MEMORANDUM FOR: Executive Directors and Staff,
Housing Authorities of Wisconsin

(Note: Message BCC'd to all WI PHAs and All MI UP PHAs)

FROM: Larry Wood, General Engineer, Wisconsin Public Housing Program Center

SUBJECT: Important Information about Fire Safety

Smoke detectors are important. They absolutely save lives. Since the installation of residential smoke detectors became a code requirement, the death rate in home fires has been reduced by half. Ensuring adequate smoke detection protection is an important responsibility for all housing authorities.

The following summarizes the requirements for smoke alarms and smoke detectors* that Housing Authorities need to comply with. It is our hope that this information will be of use to PHAs in ensuring that its properties are compliant and its residents will not be harmed by the effects of fire and smoke. Please note that although the REAC inspects smoke detectors in Public Housing units as part of its physical inspections, in general REAC is only checking some of the minimum requirements, but not all of them. Therefore, if recent REAC inspections have not uncovered any smoke detector deficiencies, a PHA could still not be in compliance with the requirements concerning these important life safety devices. HQS inspections also do not address all of the required smoke detector protection issues in units participating in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Generally, UPCS and HQS inspections do not address the requirements of local codes and of the Federal Fire Safety Act (Public Law 102-522). The local codes and the Federal Fire Safety Act require compliance with NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm Code. There are also requirements specified in 24 CFR 965.805. Therefore, our office has developed this guide for PHAs to give more information regarding the relevant smoke detector requirements.

Please note that your local fire official, smoke detector manufacturer, and fire protection engineer should always be consulted for the exact requirements for your particular area, building type, and specific fire protection system. This guide is not meant to take the place of or be used in lieu of their expertise for your specific situations. Listed in the Appendix of this letter are synopses of the specific codes, standards, laws and regulations.

*The term “smoke detector” will be used throughout to mean both smoke detectors and smoke alarms

Summary of the Minimum Installation Requirements:
For new construction:
  • Hardwired (interconnected required and battery backup recommended**)
  • In every sleeping room
  • Outside and in close proximity to every sleeping room
  • On every level
  • For Public Housing, in public areas, such as stairways, laundry rooms, common areas

For existing construction:
  • Hardwired (interconnected and battery backup recommended**); battery-operated are allowed as a “temporary measure” and “must be replaced with hard-wired…in the normal course of a PHA’s planned…CGP program.”
  • Outside and in close proximity to every sleeping room
  • On every level
  • For Public Housing, in public areas, such as stairways, laundry rooms, common areas

For units for the hearing-impaired, detectors must be hardwired. In addition to the installation of smoke detectors with built-in notification strobes, fire alarm strobes are required in areas where smoke detectors cannot be installed, such as bathrooms. The strobes must be placed in every room with a door and at least one strobe must visible from every room such that hearing impaired persons can be notified regardless of where they are located in the residence. The strobes are connected to a fire alarm system, such that the strobes will activate when any of the smoke detectors detect smoke. Therefore, in units for the hearing impaired, a more complicated system of detectors and strobes is required. NFPA 72, the Fire Alarm Code, specifies the requirements for this type of system. One of the requirements is that strobes in bedrooms must be located within 16 feet of the pillow and must have an output of at least 177 candela when the distance from the ceiling to the top of the lens is less than 24 inches (Table The intense light output requirements of the strobe are to ensure the strobe is able to wake up a sleeping person.

However, even in units for the hearing-impaired, one must also ensure proper sound output levels. Because persons without hearing problems can also occupy units for the hearing-impaired, alarms installed must also meet the audible alarm requirements in NFPA 72. The Fire Alarm Code requires that an alarm sound is audible in all occupiable areas. Please keep in mind that the audible sound should be very loud, especially in bedrooms, where the sound must be sufficient to waken a sleeping person above ambient noises such as radios, televisions and air conditioners.

** The Guide for Implementation of PL102-522 for Fire Alarm and Automatic Sprinkler Installations explains that “several court cases have held landlords liable for detectors not working during power failures because detectors with backup power are readily available...”

Specific Common Deficiencies:
The following are common deficiencies we have observed in Public Housing and Housing Choice Voucher units. Please note that you should always follow the installation instructions of your specific smoke detectors to ensure they are covered under the manufacturer’s warranty. All of the NFPA 72 references cited below are from the 2002 edition, the current latest edition.

Kitchens: Section of NFPA 72, The Fire Alarm Code, requires smoke detectors located within a 20-foot horizontal path from a cooking appliance to be equipped with an alarm- silencing means or to be of the photoelectric type. Cooking vapors could cause many nuisance alarms in ionization type smoke detectors, but are less likely to cause them in photoelectric type detectors because of its different way of sensing smoke. A leading reason for the removal of batteries or otherwise disabling the detector by residents are repeated nuisance alarms. Also, PHAs should consider who might be occupying the unit. If a detector with a silence-button is installed on the kitchen ceiling, a person confined to a wheelchair would be unable to press the button.

Bathrooms and Kitchens: Section of NFPA 72, The Fire Alarm Code, states that smoke detectors shall not be installed within a 36-inch horizontal path from a door to a kitchen or a bathroom containing a shower or tub. The water vapors from cooking or from a shower or tub are a common cause of nuisance alarms. Note that this requirement does not allow any detectors of any type, either photoelectric or ionization, to be installed in the 36-inch horizontal path.

Supply Registers: Section of NFPA 72, The Fire Alarm Code, states that smoke detectors shall not be installed within a 36-inch horizontal path from the supply registers of a forced air heating or cooling system. It also states that detectors should not be installed within a 36-inch horizontal path from the tip of a ceiling fan. The airflow in these locations could prevent the products of combustion from effectively reaching the smoke detector.

Most smoke detectors can either be installed on a wall and on a ceiling. However, Section requires when a detector is installed on a wall, it must be placed no lower than 12 inches but no higher than 4 inches from the wall/ceiling line. When detectors are installed on ceilings, they cannot be placed less than 4 inches from a sidewall. Improper placement might render the detector ineffective at providing early warning in a fire.

Other requirements:
The following lists some of the manufacturer’s instructions for typical residential smoke detectors regarding where NOT to install smoke detectors:

  • Do not install less than 12 inches from fluorescent lights; electrical “noise” can cause interference.
  • Do not install where temperatures are regularly below 40 degrees, such as garages or unfinished attics.
  • Do not install within 20 feet from furnaces, water heaters and space heaters, and all other sources of combustion products.
  • Do not install in insect infected areas. Insects can clog the sensing chambers. However, there are smoke detectors available with special screens to prevent insects from entering.

The above list and previous descriptions include only the most frequently seen problems by this office. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for your particular smoke detector model to see its entire set of installation requirements.

Age: Section 10.4.6 of NFPA 72 requires that, unless otherwise recommended by the manufacturer, smoke detectors in one- and two-family dwellings shall be replaced when they fail to operate during testing, but shall not remain in service longer than 10 years from the date of manufacture. Therefore, it is important to keep the manufacturing data and to plan for replacement of those detectors more than 10 years old. According to NFPA, smoke detectors have a 3% per year failure rate. Therefore, after 10 years, 30% of detectors will not work effectively. After 15 years, only half will work as designed. Even if the detector is operational on the day it is tested, there is no way of knowing if it will be operational the following day or until the next time it is tested. See also the section below regarding the reliability of testing. Of course, when batteries are used as a power source, they should be replaced in accordance with the detector’s manufacturer recommendations.

Maintenance: The manufacturer’s recommendations and procedures for maintenance should always be followed. Manufacturers often specify that detectors should be cleaned once a month by gently dusting or vacuuming the outside with a soft brush attachment. If regular cleaning is not done, a build-up of dust could prevent the detector from working properly.

Testing: Testing requirements depend on the manufacturer’s requirements, and Fire Alarm Code requirements differ depending on if the detectors protect one- and two-family dwellings or multiple-family dwellings. Always consult the manufacturers for their recommendations and requirements. Note that manufacturers recommend testing of detectors in one- and two-family dwellings by pressing the detector’s test button. Although this is the preferred method of testing, this method does not actually confirm that smoke is able to enter the chamber and activate the detector. So, it is possible that pushing the test button could indicate that a smoke detector is in working condition, but the smoke detector actually has a clogged screen or another defect such that it will not signal an alarm during a fire condition.

There are other test methods that might be recommended by the manufacturer of your smoke detectors. The use of canned “smoke” or an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) listed or other independent laboratory labeled aerosol product for testing smoke detectors is sometimes recommended. However, there are sometimes problems associated with a build-up of the aerosol product, when used improperly, causing damage to the detector. As stated above, always be careful to follow the manufacturer’s requirements, but be aware of the limitations of each of the testing methods.

In apartment buildings, other multi-family dwellings, and other public buildings such as community centers, childcare centers, and offices, NFPA 72 requires smoke detectors to be tested to ensure smoke entry into the sensing chamber and an alarm response, such as by testing with smoke or listed aerosol approved by the manufacturer. Simply pushing test buttons, however, is not acceptable.

While it is the PHA’s responsibility to ensure that smoke detectors are in working order, tenants of public housing as well as any other leased housing can also be assigned specific responsibilities to help maintain the smoke detectors in working order. In such cases, the lease should state the tenant’s responsibility, such as maintaining and testing smoke detectors between the PHA’s regular inspections in accordance with the manufacturer’s requirements, as well as any consequences if the tenant does not meet their responsibilities as outlined in the lease. PHAs should ensure that a copy of the manufacturer’s requirements is provided to the tenant, and that it keeps a record that they were provided to the tenant.

The lease should also state that the tenant is required to immediately notify the PHA if any detectors are broken or malfunctioning. It should also be clearly stated that tenants who fail to maintain the detector in proper working condition (i.e. batteries are removed or the detector is otherwise prevented from working properly) could be found to be in breach of the lease. Resulting actions by the PHA, such as eviction or fines, should also be described. Please discuss this issue with your legal counsel to ensure the leases clarify the PHA’s and tenant’s responsibilities and the consequences if tenants are proven to violate the lease.

If a person with mobility impairments occupies the unit, the PHA has greater responsibilities. For example, a person in a wheelchair is probably unable to test the detectors. Therefore, it is the PHA’s responsibility to do so instead of the tenant. Likewise, a tenant with other types of disabilities might be unable to perform the testing requirements.

We hope that this information will aid your Housing Authority in providing the required smoke detection to its residents and visitors. Although many topics were covered here, this should not be considered comprehensive guidance on the subject. We recommend consulting with the manufacturers of the smoke detectors at your properties, as well as with the local fire marshal and/or a registered fire protection engineer. Your insurance carrier can also provide information, including information on how insurance costs may be reduced when additional protection (i.e. automatic sprinkler protection) is provided. Also, please note that this addressed smoke detection only. The requirements for automatic sprinkler systems and other life safety systems such as carbon monoxide detectors were not covered here.

If you have further questions, please contact Larry Wood, General Engineer, at 414-297-3214 ext 8226 or by email at Larry Wood.

APPENDIX:  Summary of Laws, Codes, Standards, and Regulations:

Public Law 102-522, Federal Administration Authorization Act of 1992, also known as the Federal Fire Safety Act, includes provisions that directly affect HUD-assisted housing. The Act specifies where automatic sprinkler protection is needed, but it also describes required levels of fire alarm protection for all dwelling units, both PHA-owned and those receiving Section 8 assistance. The Act’s requirements differ based on if the units are newly constructed, rebuilt, or existing. For new construction and renovated units, the requirements also depend on the height of the structure. For existing buildings, the minimum fire alarm requirements are single/multiple station smoke detectors, located outside of all sleeping areas, on each level, battery or hard-wired, clearly audible or interconnected.

24 CFR 965.805: This describes the basic requirements for PHA–owned or leased properties. It states that, “at least one battery-operated or hard-wired smoke detector or the greater number required by state or local codes, in working condition, on each level.” There are hard-wiring requirements for detectors in units occupied by hearing-impaired residents. This section also states that smoke detectors are required in the public areas, including but not limited to laundry rooms, community rooms, day care centers, hallways, stairwells, and other common areas, of all PHA–owned or leased housing.

Local Codes: Local codes might have slightly different requirements for where smoke detectors are needed. However, all local codes reference NFPA 72, or the National Fire Alarm Code, as the standard for how to install the detectors to ensure they work properly. Consult your local code authority for more specifics about what the requirements are for your jurisdiction. Keep in mind that codes present MINIMUM requirements. A PHA can always provide greater protection than the minimum allowable in the code, but it must not provide less.

NFPA 72: The National Fire Alarm Code covers basically everything about smoke detection requirements including correct placement, maintenance and testing requirements. The local code officials are usually familiar with the requirements of NPFA 72, which is updated every three years. However, local code officials generally do not inspect to ensure EVERY requirement of the code is met. The officials might be inspecting for compliance to some of the basic requirements only. The Code clearly states that it is always the property owner’s responsibility to ensure compliance at all times.

UPCS: The REAC Compilation bulletin summarizes the requirements for inspection. It states, “smoke detectors within a unit must be operable and located on each living level.”

PHAS: PHAs are required to analyze local code and include these local code requirements that are more stringent than UPCS as part of its inspections. This is explained in the Instruction Guidebook for Completing Public Housing Assessment System Management Operations Certification Form HUD-50072 for the Management Operations Assessment Sub-System (MASS). While this office might ask for this documentation during a PHAS review, REAC inspectors will only cite any non-working smoke detector or missing smoke detector. This inspection deficiency is categorized as an Exigent Health and Safety (EH&S) deficiency requiring immediate correction.

HQS: The inspection form asks the following: 1) Is there is a working smoke detector on each level?; 2) Do the smoke detectors meet the requirements of NFPA 74 and its successor standards (NFPA 74 has been succeeded by NFPA 72)?; and 3) In a unit occupied by the hearing impaired, is there an alarm system connected to the smoke detector?

Additional HUD guidance: Notice PIH 99-11 (HA) – Fire Safety, issued Feb 17, 1999, also contains helpful information regarding fire safety topics. The Guide for the Implementation of PL102-522 for Fire Alarm and Automatic Sprinkler Installations, contains detailed guidance on smoke detection and automatic sprinkler issues such as how to choose a qualified contractor. The guide is available at the following website,