Waking children with maternal voice smoke alarms

New study shows that maternal voice smoke alarms are more effective in waking children than conventional tone alarms

Posted: Dec. 13, 2018

child sleeping with mother in the background
While research continues, the USFA recommends the continued use of traditional smoke alarms to protect families and homes.

There's a very good reason to be particularly fearful of a home fire while you're asleep. Almost half of all fatal home fires PDF 773 KB during the years 2014-2016 occurred between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Previous research also shows that while auditory tone alarms wake most adults, they are less likely to wake up children.

The auditory stimulus needed to wake a child from sleep is greater than that for adults.

Researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital (NCH) in Columbus, Ohio recently re-visited their findings from a previous 2006 study comparing parent voice and conventional tone smoke alarms. They used a larger sample size in the second study to confirm that a personalized maternal voice alarm is more successful in waking children than the conventional tone signal. They also examined whether using the child's name in the personalized voice alarm contributes significantly to waking a child.

Study results 1

The team from NCH and Ohio State University compared the effectiveness of three maternal voice alarms and a conventional high-pitch tone alarm in waking 176 children between the ages of 5 – 12. They also tested whether the children could perform a self-escape procedure.

The results showed that a maternal voice alarm was about three times more likely to wake a child than a tone alarm. Also, 85 percent of the children woken by a maternal voice alarm had enough time to escape, compared to just 51 percent for the tone alarm.

I think one of the most remarkable things that we saw were children that would sleep up to five minutes through a very loud, high-pitched tone alarm, the type of alarm that's in most households, and yet the next time they fell asleep and we sounded the mothers voice in the smoke alarm, they woke up almost immediately and immediately left the room.

— Gary A. Smith, MD, DrPH, Director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital

Research takeaways

  • Maternal voice alarms outperformed a conventional high-pitch tone smoke alarm in waking up children in a home.
  • Most of the children who awoke within 5 minutes of the voice alarm were also able to perform the escape procedure within the 5 minutes. Maternal voice alarm use may be able to reduce fire injuries and fatalities among children old enough to perform self-rescue.
  • Using the child's first name did not increase the alarm effectiveness. A single voice alarm using the mother's voice can be effective for waking multiple children.

Questions that remain

Future research needs to look at whether another female or male voice can be equally effective compared to the mother's voice. Another question is how does a maternal voice alarm compare with a low-pitch tone? And finally, are these voice alarms equally effective for waking all other age groups?

Read the study press release

1Smith, G. A., Chounthirath, T., & Splaingard, M. (2018). Effectiveness of a Voice Smoke Alarm Using the Childs Name for Sleeping Children: A Randomized Trial. The Journal of Pediatrics. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.09.027


Learn more about this research

Summary information for this article was provided by the NETC Library. You can request access to this research study by contacting the library at FEMA-NETCLibrary@fema.dhs.gov.


This summary is for informational purposes only. More +
As such, the content does not reflect any official positions, policies, or guidelines on behalf of the sender, the U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA, DHS, 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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