There are few sounds on the planet more annoying than the beeping of a smoke alarm. The high pitched alert is meant to save lives in case of a fire. But believe it or not, many times children will sleep right through that alarm despite the sounds being echoed through the home.
It’s been proven time and time again that smoke detectors save lives. Firefighters recommend having several throughout the house. But after numerous studies, with the most recent being out of the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom, more than 80 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 13 did not wake up when the alarm sounded. That research is in line with similar studies conducted in the United States.
The numbers are a cause for alarm because the website Ready says a house can become fully engulfed in flames in less than five minutes. According to a report by ABC News, the American Red Cross says seven people die and 36 people are injured every day as a result of house fires in this country.
Sleep specialist Dr. Terry Brown of the Southern Illinois Healthcare Sleep Center says children spend more time in deep sleep than adults and that’s why it’s harder for them to wake up. This deeper sleeping pattern generally last through the teen years.
Television news stations around the country have conducted tests with sleeping children and various types of smoke alarms. I personally have been involved with two of these experiments. The children involved were between the ages of 3 and 9. We set up infrared cameras in their bedrooms and waited for them to nod off. After about an hour and with the help of the parents, we set off the smoke alarms. That’s about the time doctors estimate people are in stages three and four of sleep. It’s known as slow wave sleep and consumes the first third of the night.
“It may be that stage of sleep comes first because basically, we need it to replenish the brain. So we get that taken care of whether we get the other stages or not,” said Dr. Brown.
He added slow wave sleep is also when children start getting the growth hormones they need, and that may explain why they sleep so soundly. Research also suggests boys tend to sleep sounder than girls, so keep that in mind as well.
In both examples, done in two different states and about three years apart, the kids slept through the high pitched beeping. Both families had three sons. Kathy and Todd in Indiana watched on a monitor down the hall for eight minutes before any of their sons woke up. Even then the boys were groggy and did not react to the high pitch beeping of the alarm. None of the kids sprang into action and tried to escape their room.
Kathy knew her boys, ages 2, 4, and 8 were sound sleepers, but she never imagined they’d snooze through the smoke alarm, which was right outside their bedroom doors. At one point she even stood outside the closed door, clapping her hands and calling for the boys to wake up. It took several more minutes of her doing that before her oldest son finally opened his eyes and wondered what was happening.
This bothered Kathy and her husband Todd for several reasons. They live in a split level home. Since the master bedroom is on the other end of the house, they would be cut off from their boys if a fire happened in the center of their home.
The other family in this experiment had a similar floor plan and response to what they’d seen. Brian and Lisa of Illinois had never given the situation much thought.
“I honestly thought that they would be up in a couple of minutes and coming out that door,” said Brian. His wife was equally surprised. “I didn’t expect them to wake up right away, I thought it would take time. It was upsetting. I was trying not to cry. A fire could come through and they would still be in their rooms.”
Six minutes passed and the only movement came from Grant, 8, who pulled the covers over his head. After our test, Brian and Lisa decided it was time to invest in other equipment to help wake their boys in an emergency. Doctors and firefighters want parents and caregivers to be aware of this research and have a backup plan in place in case of a fire.
“It might be prudent for parents to put their children where they’re closer to the smoke alarms, but at the same time, it’s important to remember kids won’t wake up as readily as they will and they’ve got to make sure their kids are awake,” said Dr. Brown.
Some companies sell smoke alarms that interrupt a sleeping child by providing the option to record a voice. Other studies have shown that a female’s voice sounding in place of the alarm beeping was more effective in waking a slumbering child. There are plenty on the market to chose from on various sites, including Amazon, Target and First Alert.
Whether you have the voice alarm or not, there are other things that can be done to protect your family in case of fire. Make sure your home is equipped with more than one smoke alarm and load it with fresh batteries. It’s recommended batteries be changed the same weekend as Daylight Saving Time or when needed.
Current recommendations include placing alarms in each bedroom of the home as well as outside each room and at least one on each level of the house. That’s because smoke rises through the stairwell. Have more than one escape route from the house in case other exits are blocked. Remind children to get low to the ground and touch the doorknob to see if it’s hot before opening the door. Do not hide under the bed or in the closet. Firefighters in full gear can appear scary to children so let your kids know these men and women are there to help.
These tips along with remaining vigilant and mindful of the potential dangers can help eliminate the cause for alarm in your household.
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