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Alarming News About the Effectiveness of Smoke Detectors

Researchers at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia conducted a study among school-age children to see how effective a smoke detector was in waking them up in the event of fire. Unfortunately, the results were frightening, and a serious wake-up call for parents, firefighters, and to fire-safety educators alike.

The study, whose results were publicized recently in the industry journal Fire and Materials, asked the parents in 80 families to activate the smoke detector in their home after their children had been asleep between one and three hours. The 123 children who were in the study were divided into two groups, based on which children had reached puberty and which did not. The reason for this: Levels of the hormone melatonin, which helps induce sleep, go down once children reach puberty. So it would seem that younger children would be deeper into sleep, and perhaps less likely to be awakened by an alarm.

That proved to be true–but it did not mean that most of the older children heard the alarm, either. In fact,, 78 percent of all the kids that were studied slept through a smoke detector’s alarm that was blaring for at least 30 seconds. What’s more, parents reported that of the 22 percent of children who did wake up, only half of them identified the noise as a smoke detector, and just one-fourth of them even knew that a smoke detector’s noise means to get out of the house immediately. And while the younger kids were likeliest to sleep through the alarm (87 percent of them!), 56 percent of the 11- to 15-year-olds also slept through the piercing noise.

Such a study is a clear sign that parents have more responsibility to their families when it comes to fire safety than they might have thought. Specifically, not only must parents teach their children why a smoke detector makes that loud noise and what the kids need to do if they hear it, but parents must also have a plan for reaching their children quickly in the event that the smoke detector starts blaring.

Here’s why: The study shows that there is a strong chance that a child will not wake up from the alarm, so there is a real possibility that the child could become a victim of third-degree burns and/or smoke inhalation–both of which can happen in seconds, and are often deadly.

One of the study’s researchers put it this way: “Parents should not rely on their children waking to the smoke alarm in the event of a fire, and they should not assume that the children will immediately evacuate if they do wake up to a fire,” says Dorothy Bruck.

Interestingly, many fire departments are happy to make brief home visits to help parents teach children about the importance of the smoke detectors, and to create an evacuation plan from each room in the house. Because when it comes to a house fire, there might not be a way for parents to reach their children to lead them to safety. So kids need to know what to do once they are awakened by the alarm, or by shouts from their parents. Remember, kids tend to freeze when frightened, and this can have deadly consequences. But if they know what is happening and know what they should do, the chance of survival is much greater.