In May, an exclusive CBS Atlanta investigation forced the national recall of more than 18,500 counterfeit smoke detectors. The year-long investigation found the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department bought and handed out the fake detectors to low-income, high-risk areas. It prompted an FBI investigation.
That was six months ago. Since then, changes have been made. CBS Atlanta's Jennifer Mayerle discovered the fake smoke detectors and let the fire department know about her investigation.
"It was a tremendous blow to the overall fire safety efforts of the department," said AFRD Chief Kelvin Cochran.
Atlanta's fire chief talked candidly about learning the fire safety efforts of his department were in vain.
"The men and women that engaged in that long, tedious work were very disappointed, but we had to get over that very, very quickly because the sense of urgency of discovering them and replacing them with authentic smoke alarms is more important than wallowing in the misery of our wasted efforts," Cochran said.
Cochran took immediate action, issuing a recall and starting a replacement program. Every other weekend firefighters knock on doors in neighborhoods were the fake smoke detectors were handed out. They replace the faulty detectors with new ones. They also initiated a hotline for people to call if they think they have a counterfeit smoke detector.
The department bought the smoke detectors from Silver Sails, a company based in Calabasas, California. It's run by convicted felons Bob and Judie Silver. CBS Atlanta confronted the couple in California in May.
"Do you care that you're putting people's lives in danger?" Mayerle asked Bob Silver.
"I'm not putting anybody's lives in danger. Get out of here," he said.
The smoke detectors have a fake hologram "UL" label on the back. "UL," or Underwriters Laboratories, is the company that puts smoke detectors through rigorous tests and decides if they meet national safety standards before they reach the public. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has an active recall for the counterfeit smoke detectors as well.
"It was a teachable moment for us and now that we know that there is such a thing as counterfeit UL labels, then we're able to expect that, really write it into our specifications," said Cochran.
Those specifications fall under Atlanta's Department of Procurement. During Mayerle's investigation, she discovered a simple five-minute Internet search looking at the federal Excluded Parties List System which would have shown years before Atlanta did business with Silver Sails, they were banned from doing business with the federal government.
Bob and Judie Silver spent time in prison for selling counterfeit smoke detectors to the federal government.
"I don't want this to ever happen again," said Adam Smith, Atlanta's Chief Procurement Officer.
Smith chose to make a change.
"I thought it was important for the City of Atlanta to have a written stand alone policy as part of our procurement process that checks the background," Smith said.
The new policy happened as a result of CBS Atlanta's Tough Questions investigation. Now procurement staff will check the EPLS database for every company who bids on goods in Atlanta, not just with the fire department.
And they took the process one step further.
"I think it's vitally important to make sure that we get samples first to check to make sure that the product works and that it does what you're supposed to do," Smith said.
As for Silver Sails, they're currently the focus of an FBI investigation. That's a result of CBS Atlanta's Tough Questions.
"Are you ready to go back to prison?" Mayerle said to Bob Silver back in May.
"I'm not ready to go anywhere," said Silver.
While the FBI investigation and subsequent case with the U.S. Attorney's office plays out, Cochran wants the city to be vindicated, and the funds spent on the fake smoke detectors refunded.
"Whatever consequences that the owners of Silver Sails face, that one of them would be that they would not be in a position where they could actually purchase and sell counterfeit smoke alarms to any community in the future," said Cochran.
One of the concerns of the fire department originally had was how it was going to pay for all the new smoke detectors. However, they were recently granted a $475,000 by the federal government, and that money will cover all 18,500 detectors and more.
CBS Atlanta will stay on top of the FBI investigation.
If you think you have a counterfeit smoke detector, call the Smoke Alarm Hotline at 404-546-2733 or send them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The fire department will replace and install a new smoke detector at no cost.
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