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High-frequency tone smoke alarms are not effective in waking sleeping pre-teenage children

Posted: Sept. 30, 2021

Caregivers in your community need to know that pre-teenage children may not wake up to a high-frequency tone smoke alarm.

Your community needs to know

During Fire Prevention Week (Oct. 3-9) and throughout the year, let caregivers in your community know that pre-teenage children may not wake up to a high-frequency tone smoke alarm.

Smoke alarms manufactured specifically to awaken pre-teenage children are not commercially available. When caregivers create their home fire escape plans, they need to consider this and make sure someone is assigned to wake pre-teen children.

Children sleep longer than adults and spend more time in slow-wave sleep, a sleep stage that requires the loudest noise to wake someone. This is especially problematic because data show that 31% of people killed in home fires are sleeping at the time of the fire.

Research on waking children with smoke alarms continues

Researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital (NCH) in Columbus, Ohio, have studied sleeping children’s ability to wake up and escape in response to a variety of smoke alarms for many years.

A 2020 study1 by NCH looked at how quickly children awaken from slow-wave sleep and perform an escape procedure in response to smoke alarms using a:

  • Female voice.
  • Male voice.
  • Combination of a low-frequency tone plus a female voice.
  • High-frequency tone.

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.

Research takeaways

  • The median time to escape for the male voice, female voice and hybrid voice-tone alarms was 12-13 seconds. It was more than a minute and a half for the high-frequency tone alarm.
  • Voice alarms don’t need to use a child’s name or their mother’s voice. This allows the alarm to be manufactured at a lower cost using a generic recording. Decreased cost and no need for voice personalization increases the likelihood that the alarm will be purchased, used and installed correctly.
  • Alarm signals that awaken and prompt escape among children also work for adults and older adults.

Participants: 188 children aged 5-12 years old were recruited for the study. Adolescents over the age of 12 were not included because they generally respond well to high-frequency smoke alarms. Children under age 5 were not part of the study because they are too young to reliably rescue themselves from a home fire.

Future research

The findings of this study add important information to the research team’s previous studies and the work of others to develop a commercially available, effective and practical smoke alarm for children. Use of these alarms in children’s sleep areas may reduce home fire-related injuries and deaths among children old enough to perform self-rescue.

A remaining question to be answered by future research is how a child’s escape response is influenced by the message content of a voice alarm.

1Smith, G. A., Chounthirath, T., & Splaingard, M. (2020). Comparison of the effectiveness of female voice, male voice, and hybrid voice-tone smoke alarms for sleeping children. Pediatric Research, 88, 769-775. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-020-0838-1

This summary is for informational purposes only. As such, the content does not reflect any official positions, policies or guidelines on behalf of the sender, the U.S. Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, nor any other federal agencies, departments or contracting entities. Similarly, this summary does not represent in any manner an official endorsement or relationship to any private or public companies, organizations/associations, or any authors or individuals cited or websites associated within the article.

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