The Value of Vocal Smoke Detectors

The Value of Vocal Smoke Detectors

Recent research has shown that children are in grave danger of sleeping through fire alarms. When that shrill shrieking alarm begins to blare, most adults will find it impossible to sleep through the noise. However, sleeping children do not always hear or respond to the beeping of smoke detectors, putting them at greater risk.

While we tend to rely upon our smoke detectors to wake us up during a fire, the fact is that smoke detectors do not always wake everyone. Studies show that children are often likely to sleep through a fire alarm because their level of sleep is much deeper than that of adults.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, children (age 14 and younger) constitute 21% of residential fire fatalities and 14% of residential fire injuries.

Different Sleeping Patterns

The question that is important to answer is what are most children doing at the time of a fatal fire.” USFA again states that the largest percentage of child fire fatalities happened while the child was asleep. More than half of the 560 children who died in fires in 2002 were sleeping at the time of the tragedy.

Several issues must be considered as to why the children never woke up. All are directly related to smoke detectors. Either there were no working smoke detectors in the house, or simply a lack of audible recognition to this safety device from the child.

Recent studies have shown that in the case of children it is not always the problem that a smoke detector was not there or was not operational. Instead, sleeping children did not always react properly to the alarm or even wake up. The fact remains that children are more likely than adults to sleep through an alarm. Dorothy Bruck’s research established that as few as 6% of the children (ages 6-15) involved in her 1999 study were actually awakened by a smoke detector. While her study was performed in Australia, using Australian smoke detectors, recent U.S. studies have discovered the same. Several U.S. news agencies began their own investigations which confirmed Bruck’s study.

The reason behind inadequate sleeping-child response to smoke detectors rests partially in children’s sleeping patterns. According to doctors consulted in the various studies, children’s level of deep sleep is longer and deeper than most adults, which makes it difficult to wake them. Part of the reason comes from the immaturity of a child’s brain. The deep sleep theory became clearer when researchers would move the alarms and place them directly above the children’s heads and still get little or no response. Bruck says that the percentage of responses rose, but response still was as low as 27% for children ages 6-10.

Emergency Response

The importance of immediate action when a fire breaks out is critical. The difference between a one-minute response and a two-minute response may, in some cases, be the difference between life and death.

In a test performed in Madison, Wisconsin, it took up to 4 minutes to wake the children with a standard alarm. In 2004, NBC Boston investigated a sleeping child’s response to smoke detectors, and realized that the majority of the children they investigated would not wake up. Those that did get out of bed failed to respond correctly to the emergency. It is now understandable why over 50% of child fire fatalities occur while the child is sleeping.

Do not for a moment, however, think that smoke detectors are useless. Since smoke detectors have become more widely used, the number of fire fatalities in general has decreased drastically. This information simply means that new response programs will have to be designed based on child response. Parents have to make certain that they know how their children will respond to a smoke detector.

The fact that children sleep through alarms also means that the old saying “first up, last out,” — the one who wakes up first goes about getting all others out of danger — must become part of a household’s emergency procedures. However, even here problems arise because the “first up” might not be able to reach the other members of the household. What then? Who will wake the children?

The answer is a vocal smoke alarm — one that emits the standard beeping as well as vocal warnings. While screeching alarms may not wake up a sleeping child, vocal alerts may do the trick. Studies show that children do respond more positively to human voice alerts than just to sounding alarms. Part of the reason is that children do not hear the alarm or they are generally unfamiliar with the alarm and how to respond. Because of this, they subconsciously ignore the siren. Human voices, however, offer meaning to them, even when they sleep. A simple vocal siren that says, “Get up. There is a fire in the house. Go outside,” is not only meaningful and wakes them up, but it also aids in keeping them calm and tells them what to do — a reminder of what went on in their fire drill.

While 66.7% of the children Bruck investigated responded to a standard alarm within a reasonable amount of time, 100% of the sleeping children (ages 6-10) responded within a minute to vocal alarms.

In Hank’s Investigation, the response was the same. The alarm was programmed with the parents voices calling their children by name and calmly telling them to get up and get out of the house. The children all responded within a minute to the vocal smoke alarms.

Our response to these studies should be to implement a more comprehensive fire safety plan for our homes, one that incorporates the needs of different family members.


Bruck, Dorothy, Sharnie Reid, Jefoon Kouzma, and Michelle Ball. “The Effectiveness of Different Alarms in Waking Sleeping Children.”

FEMA. “Residential Fires and Child Casualties.” Topical Fire Research Series 5.2 (April 2005) United States Fire Administration.

Public/Private Fire Safety Council. “Home Smoke Alarms and Other Fire Detection and Alarm Equipment.” White Paper. April 2006.

“Smoke Alarms Won’t Wake Most Children.” 1 May 2006. Channel3000: WISCTV.COM.

Ryan, Hank Phillippi. “A Cause for Alarm.” 7News Boston. 9 February 2004.