Nebraska lawmaker considers legislation for advanced fire alarms meant to save lives

By: - September 26, 2023 5:20 pm

State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, fourth from right, introduced an interim study to assess the feasibility of more advanced fire alarms for statewide regulations. McDonnell is joined by Norfolk officials to his left and right; State Fire Marshal Scott Cordes, second from left; and members of the Urban Affairs Committee on Sept. 26, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A Nebraska lawmaker is looking to potentially require more advanced fire alarms in residential homes that he said Tuesday could save lives. 

State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha testifies before the Urban Affairs Committee on Sept. 26, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha introduced Legislative Resolution 239 to examine the feasibility and benefits of requiring wireless interconnected fire alarms in residential dwellings, similar to a Norfolk, Nebraska, ordinance. The study is meant to inform possible legislation that would be among McDonnell’s final bills before he’s term-limited in 2024.

Norfolk officials, the state fire marshal and McDonnell testified before the Urban Affairs Committee. McDonnell, a former Omaha fire chief, said advanced safety measures could set a precedent for other cities or states to follow.

“It is our duty to lead by example and ensure that we are doing everything in our power to protect our communities from the devastating effects of fire,” McDonnell told the committee.

‘It will save lives’

Steve Nordhues, building official for Norfolk, said the city moved to adopt more stringent regulations in 2020 after numerous deaths statewide. 

Steve Nordhues, building official for the city of Norfolk. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Smoke alarms are required in new dwellings in every bedroom as well as one outside the bedrooms within 20 feet of the room, according to Nordhues. One alarm must be on each floor. The Norfolk ordinance requires homeowners or landlords to replace battery-operated alarms with interconnected ones at the change of ownership or occupancy.

By 2030, Nordhues said, every Norfolk dwelling will be protected by interconnected alarms, which utilize radio frequencies.

Wireless connected alarms cost an average of  $50, compared to around $15 for battery operated alarms. Nordhues said smoke alarm costs are “virtually not an issue” based on current rent structure and the selling prices of existing homes.

“Why did the city of Norfolk pursue this? Frankly, because I was tired of reading and hearing about children dying in their beds,” Nordhues said. 

“Our city ordinance will not prevent all fire-related fatalities,” he added. “But over time, it will save lives by warning families of a dangerous situation in their homes.”

Alarms identify fire location

State Fire Marshal Scott Cordes. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Fire Marshal Scott Cordes said he recently installed interconnected alarms in his home, because he is preparing to sell it, and the alarms audibly state where a fire has been detected. For example, in the “northeast bedroom, main floor.”

This could help someone determine a safe exit path, Cordes said.

“Anytime you can expand the early warning notification for life safety in a home is a great thing,” Cordes said.

‘Difference between life and death’

McDonnell told the Nebraska Examiner that a dangerous job such as firefighting is made safer through training, technology and having the right number of people on the scene. The same can be done for citizens with early detection.

“You don’t have a crystal ball,” McDonnell said. “But every indication was that, yes, that [early detection] would have most likely made the difference between life and death.”


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.