Editor, IFSEC Global

Author Bio ▼

Adam Bannister was Editor of IFSEC Global from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam is also a former Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
February 24, 2017

Sign up to free email newsletters


The Video Surveillance Report 2020

Fire detection

Smoke alarm frequencies too high to wake most children – especially boys – study reveals

Most children slept through the sound emitted by a conventional fire alarm during a recent study.

In a trial conducted by researchers at Dundee University and investigators from Derbyshire Fire and Rescue, only seven of 34 children woke up when smoke alarms went off.

The researchers have developed a prototype alarm with a lower pitch – 520Hz, compared to the usual frequency of around 3,000Hz – as well as a female voice warning building occupants that smoke has been detected.

Smoke alarms are required by law to reach 85 decibels at 3m (10ft).

Dave Coss, watch manager at Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, reflected on the deaths of six children in a house fire in Derby that prompted him to get involved with the research. The children, aged between five to 13, all slept through the sound of smoke alarms. Mick Philpott was jailed for life for manslaughter and his wife, Mairead, as well as an accomplice were sentenced to 17 years for their role in the 2012 fire.

“When we investigated this tragic case, we thought the children may have been incapacitated in some way and prevented from getting up, as all were found in their beds,” Coss told the BBC.

Because Toxicology reports were negative, investigators concluded that “the children didn’t respond to the smoke detector and just carried on sleeping”.

Gender bias

Six tests were carried out in each of the homes of 34 children aged between two and 13. They were given no indication as to when to expect the alarms.

Twenty-seven children slept through the alarms on all six tests. A potential gender bias was revealed, because the seven children who did wake up at least once were all girls.

“Boys are especially hard to wake, and we think they will respond to a human voice,” said professor Niamh Nic Daeid, a forensic scientist at Dundee University.

When the prototype smoke alarm was deployed in one household the four boys living there woke up immediately.

The study was captured by the BBC.

Brain development

Offering a theory as to why traditional frequencies were ineffective, Rodney Mountain, from the University’s School of Medicine, said: “Children’s hearing ability, brain function, sleep patterns and stage of brain development is very different to adults.

“We are programmed to respond to human voices warning of danger, such as a mother’s voice shouting to warn a child.

“Children are not born pre-programmed for our modern world of danger warning sounds from digital beeps and sirens – they have to learn, recognise and interpret these sounds.”

Some 500 families from across the UK with children aged between two and 16 are being sought to take part in a trial comparing standard smoke alarms with the new sound.

Prof Nic Daeid said: “Protecting our children in the event of fire is so fundamentally important that we want to involve parents and their children in expanding this research.”

The researchers said it was important the study did not undermine the need for every home to be fitted with smoke alarms, as these will wake adults and had a proven record in saving lives.

Audio alarms are not the only alternative, with pads available that fit under a pillow and vibrate when triggered, making them suitable for those with hearing problems.

The Chief Fire Officers Association said it was “crucial” that people tested their smoke alarms regularly, adding: “As this research does indicate that some children may not wake to the sound of a smoke alarm, parents, guardians and responsible adults should ensure that they prepare an escape plan which must account for this.

“Children must be woken and evacuated as part of this plan.”

The Future of Fire Safety: download the eBook

Is the fire protection industry adapting to the post-Grenfell reality fast enough? At FIREX International 2019, Europe's only dedicated fire safety event, some of the world's leading fire safety experts covered this theme. This eBook covers the key insights from those discussions on the developments shaping the profession, with topics including:

  • Grenfell Inquiry must yield “bedrock change” – and soon
  • After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress
  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
  • Fire safety community has to “get on board” with technological changes

Related Topics

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments