The National Fire Protection Association’s campaign for Fire Prevention Week 2021 is “Learn the Sounds of Fire Safety.” The campaign’s mission is to encourage the fire service to educate their communities about the different sounds smoke and carbon monoxide alarms make and the actions to take if an alarm sounds.

Your local firefighters and the members of the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League are proud to support this mission and spread the message.

Fire Prevention Week marks the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire that began Oct. 8, 1871, and continued to cause devastation until Oct. 9. The blaze killed more than 300 people, left more than 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures, and burned more than 2,000 acres.

In 1922, the NFPA named the second week of October Fire Prevention Week to continue to raise fire safety awareness and to help ensure homes and families were protected. In 1925 President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the first National Fire Prevention Week, which is always the Sunday to Saturday period containing the Oct. 9 Chicago fire anniversary.

According to the United States Fire Administration, an interesting focus of this year’s message is based on new research that indicates that pre-teenage children may not wake up to a standard smoke alarm with a high-frequency alert tone. At this point, smoke alarms have not been designed to specifically awaken pre-teenage children, so when adults create fire escape plans they must consider this and make sure someone is assigned to wake any pre-teen children.

Research indicates the standard high-frequency tone alarms only wake 56% of children and only prompt 55% to take action to “escape” from their bedrooms.

According to the USFA, children sleep longer than adults and spend more time in slow-wave sleep, a sleep stage that requires the loudest noise to wake someone. This is especially problematic, because data show that 31% of people killed in home fires are sleeping.

Researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, have been studying the ability of sleeping children to wake up and escape in response to a variety of smoke alarms.

A 2020 study by NCH looked at how quickly children arouse from slow-wave sleep and perform an escape procedure in response to smoke alarms using a female voice, a male voice, a combination of a low-frequency tone plus a female voice, and a high-frequency tone. The study included 188 children that were aged 5 to 12 years old. The study indicated that the female voice, the male voice, and the hybrid voice-tone alarms all woke at least 85 percent of children and prompted at least 84 percent to “escape” from the bedroom, compared with only 56 percent awakened and only 55 percent escaped when the high-frequency tone alarm was used.

According to researcher Dr. Mark Splaingard, the median time to escape for the female voice, male voice, and hybrid voice-tone alarms was just less than 13 seconds, while it was more than 90 seconds for the high-frequency tone alarm. Dr. Slaingard notes the significance of finding a smoke alarm sound that reduces the amount of time it takes for many children to wake up and leave the bedroom. This discovery could save lives.

While a specifically designed and commercially available smoke alarm that is both effective and practical for children is not yet available, there are smoke alarms available now that use voice technology and direct the action to be taken. These alarms may say “Fire, Fire, Evacuate the Building.” Use of these alarms in children’s sleeping areas may reduce home fire-related injuries and deaths among children.

As always, Fire Prevention week is the perfect time to educate and talk with your whole family about fire safety – including testing alarms, changing the batteries or upgrading to 10-year sealed battery alarms, learning how to use a fire extinguisher, and practicing a home fire escape route. Considering this new research, if a voice alarm is not available to you, it is important that your escape plan includes verifying that your children are indeed awake and exiting the structure.

Remember, three of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no working smoke alarms and less than 50 percent of homeowners have developed and practiced an escape plan. Sixty percent of consumers do not test their smoke alarms monthly.

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This column was written by Jane Perkins, Fire Safety Specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and Captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. You can email her at

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