Rude Awakening: Smoke Alarm Conclusion Could be Dead Wrong

Recent broadcast news programs have been showing something that would terrify any parent of a young child: In simulated fire emergencies in several cities, children are seen sleeping right through the blaring sound of a smoke alarm, some for several minutes.

This dramatic footage has raised good questions among firefighters, fire safety experts, and others. But it may be causing some parents concern about the wrong thing.

If parents conclude from these demonstrations that they don't need smoke alarm protection, they'll be dead wrong. The fact is, smoke alarms do work. What remains to be seen is if the technology and our use of it can be made better.

Since the early 1970s, the concept behind residential smoke alarm protection has been to alert occupants to a fire in enough time for a safe escape. Since then, home fire deaths have dropped by 50 percent and fire researchers have credited this in large part to fire protection technology.

When people do die in home fires, that typically happens where there is no smoke alarm protection. Half of the approximately 3000 home fire deaths that occur in the USA each year take place in the very small share (6 percent) of homes that have no smoke alarms.

NFPA statistics show that home smoke alarms are nearly as effective at saving the lives of children age six to ten as they are in saving the lives of everyone else. Does this mean that in most homes, parents are already stepping in to rouse their children who do not wake to the smoke alarm sound? Does it mean that there are significant problems of waking to the smoke alarms in all age groups? We don't know, but we need to find out, if our actions are to be as effective as they can be.

With the enormous success rate that residential smoke alarms have earned over 25 years - backed up by scientific data gathering and analysis - it is clear that most of the time smoke alarms do precisely what they are designed to do: alert occupants to fire. When they don't alert anyone in the household, the research shows it is most often a result of dead or missing batteries.

What this footage clearly does underscore is the necessity for escape planning. For decades now, all of us in the fire safety community have advised the public to plan ahead in order to use the early warning afforded by smoke alarms to get out safely. Part of that process is to physically rehearse how to escape, using primary and secondary exits.

A fire, when you have only moments to get out safely, is no time to discover that your children cannot reach the deadbolt to unlock the door, or that your security bars have no quick-release devices, or that a family member is not awakening to the sound of the smoke alarm. We must reinforce this primary message: Planning and then practice helps families identify the obstacles that could impede safe escape.

If children, or any other family member, cannot awaken to the smoke alarm's signal, that should be taken into account and the escape plan should be adjusted accordingly. Just as they would for an infant or a physically disabled family member, they will have to plan ahead to assign someone in the family to rouse the child from sleep and help him escape.

Research on smoke alarms' effectiveness in waking children has only been done in recent years. Dr. Dorothy Bruck, associate professor at Victoria University in Australia has published thought-provoking findings that show children under age 15 were likely to sleep through smoke alarms.

More informally, Lt. Jon Cohn of the North Shore Fire Department near Milwaukee collaborated on an eight-month community study with an elementary school that also demonstrated children sleep through audible smoke alarm signals. NFPA is currently evaluating the risk presented by children's failure to awaken. Underwriter's Laboratories (UL) and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have indicated their organizations will investigate this emerging concern.

More research needs to be initiated, and quickly. Many factors need to be taken into account and several questions need to be answered, for example: at what ages do children sleep through an audible smoke alarm signal; what factors might contribute to some hearing adults sleeping through the signal; what is the best signal for people of all ages; and whether other audible sounds (such as voice annunciation announcements) are more effective at wakening children and adults. The answers lie in scientifically based research.

As safety groups including NFPA explore the issue, there is still very good reason to remain confident about the role of smoke alarms in home fire safety systems. In the near term, the lesson parents should take from these news broadcasts is that they won't know how their children will react to the smoke alarm until they've tested their response to it. Home fire drills are essential.

Once children have mastered the escape planning process, parents should hold a drill at night when children are sleeping, so they can assess their ability to awaken and respond appropriately. Please see NFPA's home escape and smoke alarm fact sheets at

There is room for continued improvement in smoke alarm technology and sound research is needed to guide that improvement. But it would be a grave disservice to parents if the videotaped demonstrations were to undermine their overall confidence in this lifesaving technology.

James M. Shannon became president and chief executive officer of the National Fire Protection Association in June, 2002. He has served as NFPA senior vice president and general counsel overseeing all legal affairs of the association and also has administrative and real estate responsibility for NFPA's properties. Previously, he was elected Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.