MOST of the time, it's an irritant.
It emits a high-pitch screech that shatters the tranquility of your home whenever a wisp of scalded supper tickles its sensors.
But smoke alarms are saving lives. Home-fire deaths in the United States have fallen dramatically -- nearly 40 percent -- in the past 15 years.
Better electrical codes, fire-resistant furniture and clothing, safer portable heaters, and safety education take some of the credit. But the biggest lifesaver is the installation of smoke detectors in about 92 percent of all US homes, fire-prevention experts say.
''It is the most important factor we can readily identify in reducing home-fire deaths,'' says John Hall of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, Mass. ''The chance of dying in fire drops by 42 percent if you have a functioning smoke detector.''
'Can't happen here'
But hold the applause. The US still records more fires and a higher fire-death rate than most industrialized nations in the world. New York City alone has almost twice as many fires as all of Japan.
The reason, say experts: American arrogance toward fire risk.
''In Europe and the Far East, they've had so many large fires in history that fire safety is part of the cultural consciousness,'' says Philip Schaenman, head of TriData Corporation, in Arlington, Va., and a top fire-safety expert. ''Here, people say, 'Fire Safety? Didn't that go out with the caveman?'''
In Japan, a fire may be grounds for expulsion from the neighborhood. In the US, it is seen as a blameless tragedy, an ''act of God,'' Mr. Schaenman says.
But unless US attitudes change, the dramatic declines in fires and fire deaths aren't expected to continue, say leading US fire- safety experts who met in Portland, Ore., last week to develop strategies for coordinating fire-safety education efforts in 1995.
A major concern is that there are no low-cost magic bullets, similar to the home smoke detector, on the horizon. Even that has its limitations; 30 percent of installed smoke detectors don't work due to removed or dead batteries. Cheaper residential sprinkler systems and more noncombustible materials will help some. But US fire-death rates (18.5 per million in 1993) are still 25 percent to 50 percent higher than most other developed nations. And tight federal and local budgets mean money for fire-safety education is being squeezed out.
Last month, citing budget shortfalls, the Minneapolis City Council eliminated an award-winning fire-education program for elementary school children. ''The impact won't be immediate,'' says Mary Nackbar of the Minnesota fire marshal's office. ''Longer term, we'll see more and more children without the necessary knowledge to detect or escape a fire.''
Schaenman says education is ''one of the best buys in the world. Yet it tends to be first thing that gets cut.'' The problem, fire marshals say, is that it's hard to measure the return on the investment.
Norwood, Mass., Fire Chief William Sullivan credits a children's fire-safety program, conducted by one of his firefighters, for a dramatic drop in fires and false alarms over a 14-year period. But even that record didn't prevent the program from the budget ax in 1993. The program was revived this month, thanks to donations from local businesses. California Fire Marshal Ronnie Coleman praises the Norwood example but describes it as an exception.
The closest thing to a national US fire-safety program now is the two-year, $1 million effort by the NFPA, a nonprofit organization. Last year, the NFPA gave ''seed'' grants to 60 US towns, attempting to sow ongoing support for its ''Learn Not To Burn'' fire-safety curriculum. This year, another 60 towns and 10 cities will get funds to set up, conduct, and seek private support for an ongoing fire-prevention program.
To prove its effectiveness, the NFPA is collecting cases -- about 120 so far -- that show the curriculum is saving property and lives. Two months ago, for example, six-year-old David Cox of Troy, N.Y., helped save his aunt's home next door when it filled with smoke from an electrical fire. David's father went inside, while he and his mom stood outside watching. She had a cordless phone but ''panicked'' and couldn't remember the fire department's number. ''David whipped it right off. I was so proud of hi m,'' Sandra Cox recalls. ''He also shouted to his Daddy to keep down because 'the bad air is up, good air is down.'' The fire department arrived and put out the fire.
A good start
The NFPA program is a ''valiant start,'' Coleman says, but ''the problem is bigger than 60 towns.''
Still, NFPA officials are encouraged by the Canadian Tire Company in Toronto. It recently decided to fund the distribution of one copy of the NFPA fire-safety curriculum for every elementary school in Canada. ''Almost daily, you can pick up the paper and see a family home destroyed by fire,'' says Merideth Appy at the NFPA. ''It's frustrating because it doesn't take a rocket scientist to prevent this. Just somebody who cares.''