Most children sleep through smoke alarms, investigator warns
Researchers call for alarms with lower tones combined with woman’s voice as they look for families to take part in study
By Damien Gayle
Feb 23 2017
Children are at risk of dying in house fires because they often remain asleep when smoke alarms sound, say researchers.
They are calling for high-pitched buzzers to be replaced with lower tones combined with a woman’s voice.
More than 500 volunteer families are being sought across the UK to join a study testing new fire alarm sounds after initial research showed that more than 80% of children aged between two and 13 did not respond to a traditional alarm when it was sounding.
Dave Coss, a fire investigator and watch commander at Derbyshire fire and rescue service, who is carrying out the study with scientists at the University of Dundee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The immediate thing we are saying to people is that if your alarms do go off then obviously you need to go and fetch your children to make sure that they wake up.
“In the long term, what we are looking at here is a sound – and I think I need to stress the fact that it’s a sound and not a new detector – which we could have or could be adapted in the children’s bedroom so that if the smoke alarms do go off this sound would wake the children and give them those extra vital seconds to escape.”
Coss began his research after six children died in Derby in a house fire started by their parents. Mick Philpott was jailed for life with a minimum of 15 years after being convicted of manslaughter, and his wife Mairead was handed a 17-year sentence. The youngsters, aged between five and 13, who died from the effects of smoke, were asleep upstairs when the blaze broke out at the house in the early hours.
Coss, who investigated that fire, said: “One of the problems we had to solve from an investigation point of view was why all the children were [found in] their beds, even though the smoke detector had sounded that time. Initially we though there might be other reasons. So obviously medical reasons were explored, toxicology tests were carried out, just to make sure there was nothing else, and the smoke alarm not waking them up was the only real solution that we could find.”
The suspicions were borne out by research Coss carried out with Professor Niamh NicDaeid, of Dundee’s centre for anatomy and human identification, which repeatedly exposed sleeping children to the sound of industry-standard smoke detectors inside their homes. More than 80% of the 34 children aged between two and 13 did not respond to the alarm. Only two children woke up every time and none of the 14 boys woke up at all.
“When we started to explore why this was happening and we looked at other types of frequencies of sound we found out that a lower frequency sound … combined with a voice – generally a female voice – was much more effective at waking children up, and in actual fact woke up 94% of children that we tested,” NicDaeid told Today.