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How Do Smart Home Devices Turn into Potential Fire Hazards?

Rich Vicars, CFEI

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Aug 29, 2019

In the United States, 21% of Americans 18+ indicated that they own a smart speaker, or around 53 million people. Powered by the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the popularity of smart home speakers from Amazon and Google, homes are becoming increasingly more connected. Today, devices can interact with each other and you can control everything from your thermostat, lights, home security system and even your microwave from your smartphone or smart speaker.

While convenient, this interconnectedness brings potentially serious implications for your home’s fire and life safety. As an electrical engineer, I’m fascinated by the inner workings of these devices. Each one is embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators and connectivity which enables these devices to connect and exchange data. All these aspects create a potential risk of ignition.

Since smart devices can be connected to the Internet, they’re vulnerable to hacking, viruses and malfunction. Inadvertently, or on purpose, your smart devices could turn on when you’re away from your home. For example, a hacker could gain access and turn on (or off) your smart device while you’re out on vacation. If that device is controlling a heating appliance, this unattended product could potentially overheat and cause an ignition.

To demonstrate this risk, we ran some experiments. We put sugar cookies in a smart microwave, which was connected to a smart home speaker. We were then able to send commands to the microwave to turn it on. After several minutes, the sugar cookies ignited, and a fire ignited in the microwave.

The Investigator’s Concern

Many of today’s fire investigators are not learned in the complexities of smart home devices. The tendency is to ignore or dismiss IoT’s significance on a loss site due to inadequate skill level in higher technology devices and their interconnectedness.

The more complex the home is with smart devices, the higher the opportunities for errant failures in product operation. Smart home devices create an ecosystem of interconnectedness, which can cause a cascade effect if something goes wrong. Moreover, every smart device is plugged into house power, and can become a potential ignition source of its own.

NFPA 921, the Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation, has simply not kept up with this technology, nor is it designed to keep up, nor will it ever be able to keep up. It’s not an IT Systems/Engineering and technology guide.

What Can You Do?

Whether you’re a homeowner, lawyer, manufacturer or investigator, be your own advocate. Typical fire investigators can’t keep up with rapidly changing technology and will not always think about how IoT may affect a fire investigation. Retain and consult experts who are knowledgeable in IT as well as fire investigation and product design/engineering. If you’re dealing with a fire in a home with smart devices, you should:

  • Inquire about IoT devices in the home
  • Require investigators who are knowledgeable in IoT, with IT systems expertise (those who know how to comprehend the home system)
  • Consider the extraction and interrogation of IoT data by those who have the skills to do so

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