Former fire safety researcher says smoke alarm cover-up allegations are ‘conspiracy theories’
A retired smoke alarm tester has spoken publicly for the first time denying allegations he has been involved in a cover-up that some claim has cost more than 100,000 lives since the 1950s, including those of celebrity chef Matt Golinski’s wife and three children on the Sunshine Coast in 2011.
- Mr Bukowski denies he “buried” data stating that ionisation detectors took longer to alarm in smouldering fires
- The former researcher says delay in alarm was inconsequential
- But another fire safety researcher says the alarms were “defective” and should not have been approved
“These conspiracy theories, these wild claims, they’re not true,” said Richard Bukowski, who was a key researcher on landmark reports in the 1970s and 2000s and was later contracted to do work linked to a smoke alarm manufacturer.
The research is relied on by fire brigades and the fire safety industry worldwide.
The studies found average delays of 15 minutes to one hour in the response of ionisation alarms to smoulder, but these delays were not explicitly stated in the reports, known as Dunes 1 and Dunes 2.
Smouldering fires are often linked to fatal overnight blazes, where people have been asleep before the detector sounds.
RN Breakfast revealed earlier this year that while the reports and media releases said ionisation and photoelectric alarms gave sufficient warning to escape a fire, they also contained tabulated data showing ionisation alarms had significant delays.
The alarms had been approved for use from 1954 by the US’s lead industry safety body, Underwriters Laboratories, where Mr Bukowski was later employed as a senior fire safety engineer.
Mr Bukowski says the smoke detectors’ delays were inconsequential.
Mr Patton with his filing cabinets full of documents, reports and letters covering his 50-year battle against the smoke alarm industry.
“Underwriters Laboratories approved a defective device,” 93-year-old fellow former fire safety engineer Richard Patton said.
“Many people died because it went in and it didn’t work.
“And then, when they did the tests, he at the end hid the data and claimed the smoke detectors worked fine; in other words he whitewashed it.
“And by then Underwriters was in so deep, nobody wanted to say the emperor had no clothes, so to speak.”
Ionisation alarms believed to be in most Australian homes
Underwriters Laboratories and the National Institute for Standards and Technology commissioned the research that endorsed ionisation alarms, despite the slower response to smoulder than photoelectric alarms.
Ionisation and photoelectric smoke alarms have technology that produces different performance characteristics.
Ionisation alarms have been the cheaper, more common device, and they are believed to be in most Australian homes.
But photoelectric alarms have been compulsory in other Australian buildings where people sleep — such as hospitals and hotels — since 2004.
Authorities have been so concerned in Queensland and the Northern Territory that they have gone out on their own to mandate photoelectric alarms in all homes.
In New Zealand, retailers began removing ionisation alarms from shelves earlier this year, after research and recommendations from Consumer New Zealand.
And the United States is introducing a tougher smoke alarm standard that includes a smouldering fire test that ionisation alarms are unable to pass — likely forcing them off the market by 2020.
Mr Bukowski acknowledges the standard as a positive development, but denies his reports “buried” the ionisation alarms’ delay or that the delay is significant.
“It was presented in terms of escape time. And so, if there was an hour delay between an ion and a photo in a smouldering fire, you would see an hour more escape time for the photo than you would for the ion, so it’s there in these escape time graphs, but it’s not explicit in terms of this is an issue,” Mr Bukowski said.
More than a decade ago, Australian fire safety experts lobbied for higher standards (similar to that now adopted in the US), but the Australian Building Codes Board rejected the push.
They consulted Mr Bukowski about his research.
“I can’t say why Standards Australia didn’t adopt these tests 10 years ago,” Mr Bukowski said.
“I certainly never lobbied against anything that Standards Australia was trying to do or ABCB was trying to do.”
The Australian Building Codes Board was unaware the US was adopting a new standard, before RN Breakfast reported it in June.
Senior board members have since sought briefings on the US changes, which are forecast to see photoelectric-based technology dominate the smoke alarm market.
But regardless, Mr Bukowski argues the ionisation alarm’s delay is immaterial.
“If you have a smouldering fire, it may take the ionisation alarm a half hour, 45 minutes longer, but nothing gets dangerous for an hour,” he said.
“We did evacuation calculations as they’re commonly known, all over the place for all of the floor plans that we tested in to determine how much time people needed to get out of those particular houses and those particular fires and we didn’t come up with any significant problems.”
From a test burn in January a two-bedroom apartment was set alight 81 times to test four kinds of smoke alarms. (Supplied: Fire and Rescue NSW)
“I think this is a misleading way to think about the data. The research actually found that in smouldering fires involving synthetic furniture, occupants could be trapped by smoke and eventually killed by the fumes, before an ionisation alarm responded or within two minutes of the alarm going off,” said Jay Fleming, from Underwriters Laboratories’ smoke alarm committee.
Mr Fleming — who is also Boston’s Deputy Fire Chief — has been at the forefront of campaigning for higher standards for ionisation alarms.
“I think it is important, regarding ionisation alarms, to point out that the glass is half empty, not to be satisfied with the fact that it is half-full,” Mr Fleming said.
“You’re going to see over time as photoelectric alarms get introduced into the American home, a drastic reduction in fire deaths in the United States, maybe a reduction of hopefully as many as 1,000 a year.”
‘He’s been paid a lot of money to keep a lid on this’
Mr Fleming said Australia could also see reduced fire deaths if it toughened its standard.
The major smoke alarm manufacturers, Schneider Electric and United Technologies Corporation, have repeatedly ignored or declined the ABC’s interview requests, and have never publicly responded to allegations that ionisation alarms are deadly.
After he retired from the National Institute for Standards and Technology a decade ago, Mr Bukowski was employed by fire safety consultants who were contracted to work for lawyers for smoke alarm manufacturer BRK.
“He’s been paid a lot of money to keep a lid on this,” Mr Patton said.
Mr Bukowski said: “Again that’s simply not true — that I was being paid in secret by the ionisation industry to protect them from regulation, that’s just nuts.”
There are many different types of alarm available in Australia. (Facebook: Fire and Rescue NSW)
Instead, he alleged it is Mr Patton who is motivated by a commercial conflict of interest, which Mr Patton has denied.
Many other fire experts have also spoken out against ionisation alarms, including the then New South Wales fire commissioner Greg Mullins, who told a Senate inquiry in 2014 that they should be banned.
Earlier this year, campaigners in Australia launched a legal bid for smoke alarm test data from the CSIRO, but a tribunal found it was protected by commercial confidentiality.
“The CSIRO research showed a 16-17 minute average delay with the ionisation alarms,” said David Isaac from Standards Australia’s smoke alarm committee.
“There are times when the ionisation alarm is a particularly dangerous device and we’ve seen this in the US with litigation and court cases where they’re always settled out of court under confidentiality orders by the manufacturers,” Mr Isaac told RN Breakfast earlier this year.
The woman who took on the CSIRO — Bev Butler from The World Fire Safety Foundation — believes the Federal Government and smoke alarm manufacturers are also concerned about legal liabilities.
“Because of that, they prefer to just cover it up and hope that eventually it will just go away, a new standard will come in and the ionisation alarms will just gradually be taken off the market,” Ms Butler told RN Breakfast earlier this year.
In addition to the slower responses to smouldering fires, there is also significant concern about people disabling ionisation detectors because they have a tendency to cause false — or nuisance — alarms.
The Federal Government has previously referred RN Breakfast to the Australian Building Codes Board, which says there is no evidence that ionisation alarms cause deaths.