Pennsylvania Town Apparently Thinks Smoke Detectors Are Newfangled Gadgets

Why does it always seem to require a deadly fire to normalize smoke detectors?

Photo: Renata Signorini,

Reality check. Like seat belts, smoke detectors are still considered “optional” or simply not considered at all–by middle America.

Although about 85 percent of people in this country wear seat belts, according to Wired, “That leftover 11.5 percent are most likely to be young men living in rural areas (especially the Midwest), driving pickup trucks.”

That sounds a bit biased, but apparently it’s true. Their reasons people give for eschewing restraints are multitudinous. They were only going for a short drive. It’s a political statement. They forgot. Often, however, people who don’t wear restraints don’t die alone in a crash. Many times it’s a back seat passenger who’s unbelted, and becomes a projectile that takes his belted friends in the front with him.

It Takes a Death

Inevitably, it’s a disaster that seems to wake people up to risks. That’s what happened in Irwin—a house fire in an apartment with no smoke detector killed a man. The NFPA can tell you, three out of five fatal house fires involve a missing or malfunctioning smoke detector. Smoke detectors are there to protect us, not to inconvenience us. I mistakenly assumed that we all knew and accepted that.

Another reason Western Pennsylvania is so far behind on safety issues is that even the worst case scenarios, violation fines are relatively modest. Consider the case of of the landlord below:

A fire in Jeanette on April 9 killed an 87-year-old woman in her apartment, which had no smoke detector. But the number of fire code violations was way beyond just one missing smoke alarm:

The property owner, Robert Struhala of Greensburg, has been charged with six fire and municipal code violations that could cost him up to $6,000 in fines. Struhala pleaded not guilty and awaits a summary trial May 30.

The six-unit row house had no working smoke detectors, and Jeannette officials cited Struhala for violating city ordinances that require biennial inspections, occupancy permits and registration of vacant properties, Jeannette fire Chief William Frye said.

Those residences had not been inspected since 2013, Frye said. (from

Meanwhile, fire officials in Irwin are pushing, cautiously, methodically, to bring their community into the 21st Century in terms of fire safety. Step one, require smoke detectors.  Excerpt:

[Fire Chief Justin Mochar] favors requiring inspections for smoke detectors when tenants move into rental units.

The chief said they have found that smoke detectors are not operating in the majority of residential fires to which firefighters are called.

In places that do have them, batteries are often dead or the detectors are no longer connected to the electrical wiring, Mochar said.

“We need to be proactive about this whole situation. It is nothing that these property owners shouldn’t be doing anyway,” Mochar told borough officials.

Read more about Irwin’s efforts to get basic fire safety on the political agenda HERE.