Going behind the smoke to test the two types of smoke alarms

Two basic types of smoke alarms are tested in a burn demonstration.

You have heard us say it time and time again, smoke detectors save lives and seconds count.

According to the Red Cross, you have about 2 minutes to safely get out of a burning house. Working smoke detectors can give you the extra seconds you need. But what does it take to trigger that alarm?

Our Eyewitness News iTeam goes behind the smoke with a local fire department to find out.

Steven Rockhold was frantic when he called Wood County 911

“My furnace just caught on fire. I got nothing but black smoke pouring out of the house!”

It was close to noon, January 2, 2018. Steven and Larissa Rockhold heard the smoke alarms going off in their house in Wood County as they were working on a baby bed in their living room.

“It was the scariest thing I ever dealt with,” Steven said. “The furnace in the basement was completely on fire. It was just pure black. And I couldn’t even see, maybe, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.”

That’s when he called 911 and yelled for his wife to get out.

“In my head, I thought my kids were still with me,” Larissa said.

But her 5-year-old son was in school. Her 3-year-old was at a friend’s house.

The couple rushed outside. It was 5 degrees, with a wind chill of minus-8.

Every second counts, even with a working smoke alarm. But we discovered that not all work the same way. It depends on the type of fire.

Fire Experts show us what happens at a training facility in Institute.

“It used to be a stove. We’re just using it to simulate a smoldering fire,” said Capt. Mike Shank, with the Charleston Fire Department. “We have two different primary smoke detectors that you can purchase on the market today,” Shank said as he points towards the make-shift ceiling.

“One is an ionization smoke detector, the other a photoelectric.

Ionization detectors are designed to respond faster to fast, flaming fires.

Photoelectric detectors respond faster to slow, smoldering fires.

We start with Lt. Richard Symns lighting a bed of straw in the stove to simulate a smoldering fire.

Within seconds, the smoke begins to rise.

In about 50 seconds, the photoelectric detector, the one that responds quicker to smoldering fires, begins beeping.

But just 10 seconds later, the ionization one kicks on.

There was quite a difference, however, when he created a flaming fire.

Just 12 seconds after the fire is lit, the ionization detector goes off first, which it is expected to do for a flaming fire.

It is not until nearly a minute later, at 58 seconds, that the photoelectric detector starts beeping.

“The great thing is they both detected the smoke and flames. So, it’s encouraging that both work,” Capt. Shank said afterwards.

So, which type should they put in their home?

“It’s important that they have one or the other,” Shank said. “That’s the primary goal. You never know what type of fire that you’re going to have. So, it’s important that you have smoke detectors in the first place.”

It’s important because, according to the Red Cross, you often have only two minutes to escape before you face injury or death.

The Rockholds said they are living proof of that.

By the time we had actually noticed the smoke, or smelled the smoke, the whole house would have been,“ Steven paused trying to finish the sentence.

“We would have been gone,” Larissa said.

They are still sorting through the aftermath, nearly four months after the fire.

What’s ironic is that the smoke alarms, which had 10-year sealed batteries in them, were installed in August of 2016, by Larissa’s father, a Red Cross volunteer.

It gave them peace of mind back then.

It saved their lives less than a year-and-a-half later.

The National Fire Association recommends that both technologies be used. There are smoke alarms that have both ionization and photoelectric in them.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross is on a mission to install 100,000 smoke alarms nationwide, with 1600 of those in West Virginia. The campaign is called "Sound The Alarm" and it kicked off Wednesday in an effort to save as many lives as possible.

The State Fire Marshal's office says West Virginia leads the nation in fire deaths per capita.

The initiative kicks off Saturday, April 28, in Charleston and volunteers are needed to help with installation.

If you would like to volunteer, or if you need a smoke alarm, call 1-800-Red Cross.

To find out more about the Red Cross Sound the Alarm campaign, go to

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