Community Risk Reduction
f o r d H ave you ever wandered into a store looking for smoke alarms and wondered how the average person would make any sense of the display
in front of him? Does it appear confusing to you
and, if so, how would that come across to people
who don’t earn their living in our line of work?
When consumers are confused, price point seems
to be the most important factor in decision making.
In other words, all other factors being equal, we
tend to purchase the least expensive version of what
it is we’re looking for.
So, imagine yourself in the aisle of the store,
looking at a large display of smoke alarms, and then
start asking questions like the following:
• What is an ionization alarm?
• How is it different from a photoelectric alarm?
• Do I understand the difference between a fast-
moving and a slow-smoldering fire?
• Do I know which alarm works better on each
kind of fire?
• Do I know if a regular alkaline battery is okay or
I need something that lasts longer?
• Do I know where to put one up in my home?
• Do I know how to make sure it is working
I figure if people are replacing an existing alarm,
they are looking for whatever type they had before
(so some of the questions are already answered),
particularly if it is a hardwired smoke alarm. But it
leaves a lot of room for consumer confusion when
there are so many choices.
I like what one smoke alarm manufacturer did in
terms of labeling because it lists the type of alarms
they have for the area they are designed to be used.
Intuitively, it would help consumers decide which
type of alarm they would need for what room, and
it would seemingly reduce consumer confusion.
To add to our understanding of the issue, in
2015-2016 Everett Baker, Tyler Bennett, Jimmy
Mosteller, and John Williams, students from
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, conducted their
interactive qualifying project (IQP) to examine the
benefits of performance information for smoke
alarms for the Consumer Product Safety Commis-
sion. The report they produced was presented at a
national conference last year and dealt with con-
sumer attitudes toward smoke alarm performance
features and packaging. 1 There were a number of
very important findings in the study that could help
us understand and ameliorate consumer confusion
about smoke alarms.
First, it stipulates that smoke alarms are “low
involvement products.” Intuitively, we understand
that smoke alarms are not important to people on
an everyday basis. But by the report’s definition
of the term, they are low involvement products
because they don’t cost too much, they don’t affect
the lifestyle of the people purchasing them, and
therefore they don’t command too much time in
making purchasing decisions.
So now we’re (figuratively) facing the wall of
smoke alarms in front of us and thinking (though
not very much) about what kind we need. Not
surprisingly, in the study’s results, when all other
features about a smoke alarm were similar, the least
expensive units were selected 93.2 percent of the
time. However, when packaging was changed to
reflect a rating scale about performance, 83.3 percent of respondents selected the smoke alarm that
was priced much higher than a lower performance
LACK OF UNDERSTANDING
There were a number of other issues looked at in
the study, and generally respondents indicated that
they did the following:
• Cared about detection time but do not think
about it when purchasing.
• Wanted information on performance and will
use it when given.
• Understood flaming and smoldering fires but
had more difficulty with nuisance resistance.
• Were unaware that smoke alarms perform differ-
ently to different fires.
• Experienced frequent nuisance alarms.
• Have a smoke alarm but less than half have
purchased a smoke alarm.
It is an important topic to understand. According
to United States Fire Administration and National
Fire Protection Association data, two-thirds of the
Smoke Alarm Confusion
Looking to reduce consumer uncertainty