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Pasco, Pinellas seniors tell of expensive Florida Safety Inc. smoke alarms

Vivienne Bumpus, 79, and her 92-year-old husband, Charles, paid $2,629 for eight smoke alarms. Their dog, Shadow, sits on Charles’ lap.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Vivienne Bumpus, 79, and her 92-year-old husband, Charles, paid $2,629 for eight smoke alarms. Their dog, Shadow, sits on Charles’ lap.

Charles and Vivienne Bumpus got eight for $2,629. Barbara Bennett paid $2,448 for seven, and Shirley Goebel paid $1,260 for three.

What were their big-ticket purchases? Smoke and heat detectors sold by salesmen with Florida Safety Inc.

"When you live in a place like this, you think, 'Oh, gosh, I should have something better,' " said Bennett, 69, who lives in a single-wide mobile home in Palm Harbor. "I thought I wasn't protected."

Bennett and nearly a dozen other senior citizens in Pasco and Pinellas counties contacted the St. Petersburg Times last week after reading about a Trinity woman who had paid $1,500 for five alarms from the same company — and got a refund after her car mechanic cried foul.

Fire protection experts say people need smoke detectors in their homes — but they need not pay nearly that much. Detectors typically sell for about $20 off the shelves.

"That's ridiculous," said Pasco County Fire Marshal Larry Whitten when told how much some of the customers had paid.

But officials from Florida Safety Inc., an independent distributor that sells directly to people in their homes, and MasterGuard, the Texas-based maker of the products, say it is wrong to focus on the cost of their detectors, which they say are superior to what people can buy off the shelf.

They also say that the number of alarms doesn't depend on how big the house is but rather on "ceiling layout." They recommend smoke detectors in each room plus heat detectors, which are less sensitive to something like burning toast, in the kitchens and bathrooms.

"To us, it makes a lot of sense to invest in a quality system you can bank your life on," said Gene Yauchler, co-owner of St. Petersburg-based Florida Safety.

• • •

Florida Safety finds potential customers through direct mail lists, sending out cards that offer free home inspections. Yauchler, who used to own a water conditioning company that sold products door to door, said one of Florida Safety's target markets is people ages 55 to 75.

Part of the company's sales pitch is convincing customers that the detectors they have in their homes may not work. The salesmen show a video presentation that includes anxious 911 calls and headlines about home fires and smoke detector failures.

"He said, 'Because of your age, I really want to do what's best for you,' " Barbara Shimko, 75, of Hudson recalled about the Florida Safety salesman who sold her and her husband four alarms for $1,295. " 'I wouldn't want my parents stuck in a house where the alarms aren't working.' "

Yauchler and co-owner Harry Carter said in an interview that MasterGuard detectors are photoelectric, meaning they use a laser beam to detect smoke.

Experts say photoelectric alarms respond more quickly to smoke from smoldering fires. The other kind of detector, known as ionization alarms, work best at detecting smoke caused by flaming, fast-moving fires.

Citing a study from the early 1990s, the pair say that ionization units have a failure rate of nearly 56 percent during smoky fires.

"A lot of people think they're protected," said Yauchler.

Yauchler and Carter say their prices are higher than photoelectric detectors sold in retail stores because MasterGuard products are of better quality and handmade in the United States. They say that the units, unlike cheaper varieties, can be washed and also have 25-year warranties.

"You're going to have confidence and trust in a product made in China?" said Carter.

• • •

Many of the customers who spoke with the Times say the Florida Safety salesmen started with a higher price, then reduced the price when they got the initial no. The Bumpuses say, for instance, that the original quote they got on the eight alarms was around $5,400.

Carter, the Florida Safety co-owner, insisted Friday that the customers aren't correct. He said the salesmen start with a set bid that offers "full protection," which he said means the highest number of alarms a home needs. Based on what the customer can pay, he said, the salesmen offer a lower-priced package with fewer alarms.

In an earlier interview, he said the situation is akin to people willing to pay full price for a car — and those who want to bargain down. He said that's not out of the ordinary.

"You can do the same thing at Macy's or Dillard's," he said.

• • •

The National Fire Protection Association says that research is still evolving on what types of alarms — ionization vs. photoelectric — work best and recommends people use both types of technologies. One brand that uses both types of sensors costs $29.99 at retail stores.

The reason many experts say devices fail? People forget to change their batteries.

Pasco Assistant Fire Chief Mike Ciccarello said he doesn't want people to think they need to shell out big bucks to be protected.

"I could put a hundred other detectors in my house at $19 each," he said. "The standard of smoke detectors tested by (independent testing agency Underwriters Laboratories) would meet the needs of any residents."

• • •

The Bumpuses say they don't remember much about the day the salesman came to the door of their neat three-bedroom ranch in Holiday Lakes.

Vivienne Bumpus, 79, initially couldn't remember who she bought the alarms from. She remembered a nice man who said he lived with his mother and chased after her cat, Prince William, when he slipped out the door.

"And he showed us something on the miniature computer," she said, referring to his laptop computer.

They remembered that the salesmen told them the detectors they already had worked okay, but they weren't enough to give them plenty of time to escape a fire.

"He's on a walker," Vivienne said, nodding at her husband, "and so I'm concerned with him getting out."

In the end, they financed the purchase of eight alarms for $2,629.

"He was a fast talker," sighed Charles Bumpus, 92, "and I don't have a very good memory."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco, Pinellas seniors tell of expensive Florida Safety Inc. smoke alarms 03/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 2:09pm]
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