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Are children sleeping through smoke alarms?
Recent TV reports and newspaper articles have raised public anxiety about smoke alarms questioning whether children will awaken from sleep when smoke alarms activate and take appropriate actions, such as crawling under smoke and exiting the home, in the event of smoke or fire. Unfortunately viewers may draw the wrong conclusion that smoke alarms will not wake the household in an emergency.
It is crucial that public educators stress the importance of having working smoke alarms installed and maintained. Home fire deaths have dropped by 50% since the early 1970's when smoke alarms were first marketed. Fifty percent (50%) of the fire deaths that occur annually take place in the 5% of homes without smoke alarms!
The NFPA film "Home Fire Drills: What Every Parent Should Know" deals with the concern of children reacting to smoke alarms and points out that practice is the key. Frequent exit drill practice sessions, while awake and while asleep, are necessary to develop a reflex response when the alarm sounds. The Public Fire and Life Safety Education Task Force has developed guidelines on how to effectively use this video with adult audiences.
Smoke alarms are designed to quickly alert occupants to the presence of smoke from fire in order to provide an opportunity to evacuate the building before smoke, toxic gases and heat build up hampering escape and threatening life.
Once activated, they provide notification by means of an audible alarm with a noise level of 85dBA or more. The audible alarm may be augmented with a visual warning, such as a strobe light, for persons with physical limitations such as hearing impairments. In addition, a vibrating alert unit may be utilized under a pillow to provide protection while the person is sleeping.
What About the New Vocal Smoke Alarms?
These are very interesting but remember these key points:
- Make sure a nationally recognized testing laboratory such as Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) has listed the alarm.
- These vocal smoke alarms may be installed in addition to what is required by code not instead of what is required by the code.
- Practicing a home escape plan with children is the best way to teach them how to survive a fire. Fire educators strongly believe that that this is what works to keep children safe regardless of what type of smoke alarm you have. Teaching children the correct response to the smoke alarm (getting up and out) through practice is the key to surviving a fire.
By practicing home fire drills, both during the day and night, parents and guardians will learn if their children have any difficulties waking to traditional smoke alarms and if this technology might be helpful. The key however is practicing home escape plans. Children learn by doing.
Human behavior in smoke and fire incidents relates directly to a person's perception that fire is a threat.
Many people fail to evacuate the building because they do not perceive any threat.
No odor, no smoke or fire visible.
People associate the audible alarm signal with frequent nuisance or false alarms and become complacent when the signal sounds. "Negative conditioning".
Key Behavior: When the smoke alarm sounds we want occupants to evacuate the building.
Human response to Fire Alarms:
Are their reactions during alarms the same as the responses we expect?What do a large percentage of people actually do when an alarm is activated and the alarm sounds?
- Dismiss the event as a false alarm
- Ignore the event, fail to evacuate, continue their business/activity
- Disable the device
- To prevent further annoyance
- Because cooking sets it off
- They need a battery for another electronic appliance
Home escape drills work when they become learned behaviors.
Practice and repetition are required to develop a conditioned response.
We must develop reflex behaviors (crawling low beneath smoke and going to a safe area outside the building) so reaction to a stimulus (the sound of the smoke alarm) becomes automatic.
Change the focus of our message:
Practice… Practice… Practice!
Drills need to be practiced during the day and night, awake and asleep!
Assess the needs of your family following the drill:Do infants, elderly, disabled, or heavy sleepers need special help?
Revise your family's plan to best address individual needs.
Purchase an escape ladder to provide a secondary exit from the nursery if you will need to aid young children from a crib.
Smoke alarms must be installed correctly and maintained to assure safety.
Change batteries twice a year.
Don't disable an alarm or take out the battery.
Replace smoke alarms that are 10 years old.
Smoke Alarm Information for Public Educators!
This page is maintained by the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services.