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Preserving the Perishable: Learning the History of Fire Safety

MS055.08.0021.00002

Another Fire Prevention Week is upon us, and the fire service takes this week to focus public attention on learning fire safety throughout the year. This is a necessary time to reflect that remembering our past helps preserve and protect our future. Fire Prevention Week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire, the tragic 1871 conflagration that killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed an estimated 17,000 structures, and burned more than 2,000 acres. The fire began on October 8 but continued and did most of its damage on October 9, 1871. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation, and since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday period in which October 9 falls. According to the National Archives and Records Administration's Library Information Center, Fire Prevention Week is the longest-running public health and safety observance on record. The President of the United States has signed a proclamation proclaiming a national observance during that week every year since 1925.

Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division. Reel #63 (in Series 1, subject file 92) of the Coolidge Papers microfilm reproduction.

America Burning

Without a doubt, one of the most effective public safety campaigns driven toward fire safety was the invention of the smoke detector. The America Burning report in 1973 identified that "Many of fire's victims never awaken. Smoke, toxic gases, or lack of oxygen kills them while they sleep." (15). Such a powerful life safety device that is often overlooked or maybe taken for granted.

A Short History of Home Smoke Alarms

Duane D. Pearsall

Duane Pearsall stands between two rows of female workers at work benches at the Statitrol factory. (1975-01-01). (4)

Duane D. Pearsall (1922 - 2010) is best known for developing the battery-operated smoke detector for residential use, an accidental invention saving lives since the 1970s. Pearsall began a journey to develop, and later market, the first home battery-powered ionization smoke detector. The use of common batteries in the detector made it simple and relatively inexpensive for consumers to purchase them. The result was life-saving. (16)

Duane Pearsall with SmokeGard smoke Detectors. (1973-01-01). (6) 

Pearsall with a smoke detector damaged in a home fire. In his memoir, he wrote fondly of the first documented instance, in 1975, of a SmokeGard detector that helped save lives. (5) 

The first unit developed and marketed was named the "SmokeGard 700". Though it was developed in 1968, the SmokeGard 700 did not receive its Underwriter Laboratory approval until 1973, due to a lack of tests available for this new technology. In 1975, the beginning of mass production of smoke detection units by Statitrol began. Since this was an incredibly new technology, Pearsall faced many roadblocks with receiving patent approval and gaining support in the fire protection community. (16)

  1. Duane Pearsall and President Ford shake hands. (1976-05-13). (7)
  2. Small Business Person of the Year Recognition Letter. (1976-05-13). (8)
  3. Fire Protection Man of the Year Plaque. (1980-05-21). (9)

Statitrol SmokeGard 700

Model 700A battery compartment on top; UL Listed single station fire alarm device; use (3) 4.5V Alkaline batteries mallory PX-21. Install per owner's manual and NFPA Standard 74. (10)

Model 700, Battery Powered, 4" Diameter x 4 ½" High, 2 Lbs. with a suggested listing price of $67.95 with the following description, early warning smoke detector, self-contained, ionization principle.

Smoke Detector Education

As discussed during the 1977 International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) Conference, the smoke detector public education program of the District of Columbia Fire Department, Burton Clark, a Washington fire fighter and a Maryland public fire safety instructor, said "Smoke detectors will affect every aspect of the fire service in a positive way."

Clark pointed out that when a person enters a fire station to ask about smoke detectors, his interest in fire safety at that moment is 100 percent and that is the time for fire fighters to make the most of this interest. Clark urged that every fire fighter be knowledgeable about detectors and be able to personally give information to people instead of just handing them a pamphlet.

At the direction of Chief Burton W. Johnson, the District of Columbia Fire Department developed a program to teach fire fighters how to talk to the public about smoke detectors and published a pamphlet containing the most often asked questions and their answers. (17) 

 (Photo Credits: Dr. Burton A. Clark). (11)

Fire Prevention Week: October 3-9, 2021

Fast forward over 50 years later, and we now have the technology available for a ten-year sealed battery smoke alarm powered by lithium batteries with a life span of ten years.  Please refer to your State for residential smoke alarm requirements.  According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), "America's fire death rate is one of the highest per capita in the industrialized world. Fire kills approximately 3,000 and injures approximately 20,000 people each year. The majority of deaths are in homes without a working smoke alarm. A smoke alarm greatly reduces your chances of dying in a fire." (19).  Tragically we occasionally see firsthand the ramifications of no working smoke alarms in fatal residential fires. Failure to recognize our American Burning history sets the stage for us to repeat our tragic past failures. We must continue our collective mission in advocating for smoke alarms in our communities and through every interaction with the citizens we serve.

Fire Prevention Week is October 3 - 9, 2021 and the theme from the NFPA is "Learn the Sounds of Fire Safety!" As we educate the public on learning the sounds of fire safety, it is equally important to understand the history of fire safety. There have been thousands of lives saved due to the historic contributions of fire service and fire protection pioneers, Innovator Duane D. Persall, and Educator Dr. Burton A. Clark. As we reflect on how far technology has advanced over the last fifty years, we also must acknowledge the lives that have been saved through Fire Prevention Week, the longest-running public health and safety observance on record and the invention of the smoke detector.

Resources: 

File Name: America Burning
File Size: 7.2 mb
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File Name: White Paper Smoke Alarms
File Size: 371 kb
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Duane D. Pearsall (1922 - 2010) is best known for developing the battery operated smoke detector for residential use, an accidental invention saving lives since the 1970s.

Pearsall lived a modest life with his family. Upon graduating High School, he attended General Motors Institute (now Kettering University). He graduated from General Motors Institute after two years and due to World War II, Pearsall served in the Naval Air Corps from 1942 to 1945. He first served as a Navigator attached to a submarine patrol squadron, and then as a pilot. Flying remained an important thread through Pearsall's young life, even owning and operating a small learn-to-fly business.

Pearsall began his post-Navy career working for Honeywell Corporation in 1948. Seven years later, he left Honeywell Corporation to found Pearsall Company, which focused mainly on the production of static control devices. In 1963, Pearsall founded Statitrol Corporation in Lakewood, Colorado, which initially focused on manufacturing commercial static control devices for industry. Failure of devices in the field prompted testing in the engineering lab. While engineer and inventor, Lyman Blackwell, worked on the problem, a smoking colleague entered the room. Inadvertently, the particles of combustion from the cigarette interrupted the flow of ions and caused a change in the ionization meter readings. The idea of abandoning the manufacture of the Static Neutralizer to pursue the invention of a battery operated home smoke detector was born.

Pearsall began a journey to develop, and later market, the first home battery-powered ionization smoke detector. The use of common batteries in the detector made it a simple and relatively inexpensive for consumers to purchase them. The result was life-saving.

The first unit developed and marketed was named the "SmokeGard 700". Though it was developed in 1968, the SmokeGard 700 did not receive its Underwriter Laboratory approval until 1973, due to a lack of tests available for this new technology. In 1975, the beginning of mass production of smoke detection units by Statitrol began. Since this was an incredibly new technology, Pearsall faced many roadblocks with receiving patent approval and gaining support in the fire protection community.

During the years between the original development of the battery-powered ionization smoke detector and the awarding of UL approval, Pearsall worked with the national Fire Protection Association to help change ideas about the detector and fire protection of the era. Pearsall's persistence and work with the NFPA eventually led to the changing of building codes to incorporate the requirement of smoke detectors in all newly constructed buildings. In 1976, Pearsall was named the National Small Businessman of the Year by the Small Business Administration, and was presented the award by President Gerald Ford. Pearsall sold Statitrol to Emerson Electric Company in 1977.

The year 1980 was a big for Pearsall and Fire Protection. Pearsall was named the Fire Protection Man of the Year by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and was credited with saving more than 1,000 lives with the SmokeGard systems. Later that year, Pearsall became a charter member of Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Center for Fire Safety Studies, and began a donation matching program to help the Center grow and develop. Due to this funding commitment, the Center was able to sustain itself and grow into what is now known as the Fire Protection Engineering Program at WPI. In May 1996, Pearsall received an honorary doctorate degree from WPI, and in 2004, he was awarded the WPI Presidential Medal.

Life for Pearsall remained exciting after his resignation from Statitrol in 1977. He became a backbone for Small Business across the nation. He often spoke on behalf of Small Business, including multiple appearances as a witness in front of Congress. Pearsall additionally invested in the Rockies Venture Club, an early venture capital fund, in 1979. He then in 1983 became a founding general partner of the Columbine Venture Fund, which worked to help entrepreneurs obtain funding, a cause Pearsall felt strongly about. (13)

File Name: NFPA Journal 2013 Vol107 No02
File Size: 2 mb
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File Name: Smoke Alarms in US Home Fires
File Size: 1.3 mb
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Cover Photo: Model 700A is UL Listed as a single station fire alarm device; use (3) 4.5V Alkaline batteries mallory PX-21. Install per owner's manual and NFPA Standard 74. (1971-06-01). (14) 

This blog article was a collaboration with Chief (Ret.) Dick DeVore (Executive Director, Chief Archivist) and Christopher Baker, GIFireE (PIO).

Work Cited: 

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