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An Effective Way to Awaken Children During a House Fire Requires This Type of Smoke Alarm

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Conventional smoke alarms do not awaken children quickly enough.

A series of studies has this smoke alarm recommendation that effectively awakens children in the event of a fire.


A news release from Nationwide Children’s Hospital notes that deaths from fires in homes are more likely to occur while families are sleeping. Part of the problem is reputedly due to that many children are relatively deep sleepers and do not respond to traditional high-frequency tone alarms as well as teens and older adults do.

The significance of this is that time is of essence when it comes to exposure not only to the flames from a fire, but also the smoke, which can incapacitant individuals while sleeping, or at the very least, lead to serious toxic fume and smoke inhalation injuries.

Fire Alarm Comparison Study With Children

A solution to this problem was recently researched by scientists at Nationwide Children’s Hospital who tested the following types of fire alarms:

• Types with a male warning voice.

• Types with a female warning voice.

• Types that are a combination of a low-frequency tone plus a female voice (hybrid alarm).

• Types that produce a high-frequency tone.

In the study, 188 children age 5 to 12 years old were tested regarding the effectiveness of each alarm type to awaken them while asleep at a sleep research center in Columbus, Ohio.

What the study revealed was that alarms with either a male or female voice warning feature or a hybrid feature of a low-frequency tone plus female voice, all performed better than a conventional high-frequency tone alarm.

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Because time is such an important factor, the difference in observed response times by the children to the male voice, female voice, and hybrid voice-tone alarms—12-13 seconds, in comparison to the high-frequency tone alarm—more than a minute and a half, the researchers concluded that when used in children's bedrooms, the non-conventional voice and voice hybrid alarms are significantly more effective and are expected to reduce residential fire-related injuries and deaths among children old enough to perform self-rescue.

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"Children are remarkably resistant to awakening by sound when asleep," said Mark Splaingard, MD, co-author of the study and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Nationwide Children's. "Children sleep longer and deeper than adults and require louder sounds to awaken than adults, which means they are less likely to awaken and escape a nighttime home fire. The fact that we were able to find a smoke alarm sound that reduces the amount of time it takes for many children to wake up and leave the bedroom could save lives."

An interesting side note to this study is that previous studies have shown that personalizing the alarm message with the child's first name does not appear to increase alarm effectiveness; and, that a generic female voice coming from the alarm works just as well as using a child’s own mother's voice.

What About Waking Up Adults?

The news release reports that when tested on adults, all four types of smoke alarms performed nearly equally well with median times to escape with the high-frequency tone alarm at 12 seconds, the low-frequency tone alarm at 10 seconds, and either the female or male voice alarms at nine seconds.

"Our research demonstrates that smoke alarms developed for the unique developmental requirements of sleeping children are also effective among sleeping adults," said Gary Smith, MD, D.Ph., lead author of these studies and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

"Switching from the use of a high-frequency tone alarms that many people currently have in their homes to a smoke alarm that uses a low-frequency tone, male or female voice, or a voice-low-frequency tone hybrid signal may reduce residential fire-related injuries and deaths among sleeping children old enough to perform self-rescue, while also successfully alerting sleeping adult members in the household."

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Future research will test the child-proven smoke alarms for their effectiveness in waking older adults; however, earlier studies indicate that older adults should respond at least as well as adults younger than 65 years of age.

Current U.S. Fire Codes recommend that smoke alarms be installed on every level of the house (including the basement) and outside of every sleeping area, if not directly inside the bedrooms for the best protection possible.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay

References: Sound the Alarm: Researchers Determine More Effective Ways to Awaken Children and Their Families During a House Fire” Nationwide Children’s Hospital news release 12 Oct. 2020.

Comparison of the effectiveness of female voice, male voice, and hybrid voice-tone smoke alarms for sleeping children” Smith, G.A., Chounthirath, T. & Splaingard, M. Comparison of the effectiveness of female voice, male voice, and hybrid voice-tone smoke alarms for sleeping children. Pediatr Res (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-020-0838-1.