Smoke Detectors and Kids: Sounding the Alarm

Most of our test subjects slept peacefully through the noise.
Most of our test subjects slept peacefully through the noise.
This young man woke briefly, but fell right back to sleep.
This young man woke briefly, but fell right back to sleep.

If a fire breaks out in your house tonight, will you hear the alarm? Probably so. But what about your children? In our investigation, we put this life-saving tool to the test. In talking with five parents, because of the training children get at school and at home, they were confident their kids would respond when they heard the alarm, even if they were asleep. After all, who could sleep through that loud piercing sound?

That's what the Colberts, Grahams and Walkers thought. Who would doubt it? All of their children could even point out the smoke detectors in their homes. And they could tell us what they'd do if they go off.

Gabriella and Caroline Graham, ages nine and six, said, "We'd get up and start crawling to get out."

"We have to crawl because the smoke is up in the air and you don't want to breathe it," seven-year-old Mia Colbert told us.

And Brian Walker, also seven, said, "I'll go to the window, open it jump out, close it, and run for the mailbox."

With the parents' permission we conducted a test that night. The results would make these families rethink everything they've learned about smoke detectors. With the help of a night vision camera and a harmless fog machine, we set off the Grahams' smoke detector around 11pm.

The girls had only been to sleep about 45 minutes. Caroline sleeps within five feet of the detector, Gabriella within ten feet. Critical seconds, then minutes, went by and the girls continued their deep sleep. After nine minutes we turned the detector, off leaving their mother to only imagine what would happen if this had been a real fire.

"No reaction. I was just standing there, neither one of them moved at all," said Mariella Graham. "I could see in my mind an actual fire happening and them sleeping through it like little angels, sleeping right through it. By the time I woke up and tried to get them each out of their rooms, I don't know if we could have enough time left."

But that's one family, so we decided to test another. Earlier that day, Mia Colbert was telling us how she would crawl out of her room if she heard the smoke detector. At 11pm, with the permission of the Colberts and the help of the Engine 1 of the Savannah Fire Department, we set the smoke detectors off as their three children slept. We waited to see how long it would take for the Colbert girls to wake up. Bear in mind, within five minutes before our test, four-year-old Cailyn was crying for her mom. Our night vision camera even caught her getting into bed with her older sister.

As the alarm sounded, critical seconds passed, then minutes. But they never woke up. After three minutes, accompanied by the girls' mother and the beeping detector, we went into the bedroom where two of the three kids were sleeping. We put the detector right by their ears, and they continued to sleep. They didn't even flinch or roll over. Eight minutes later, the children still slept.

"This tells me if we wake up to a house full of smoke, we can't assume our children have taken the steps we taught them," mother Lisa Colbert said.

With our third family, the Walkers, we got different results. After three minutes, we went into Brian's room with his mother. As we approach the bed, he rolled over then put his hand over his ears and kept on sleeping. Another two minutes later, he sat up in the bed. He then laid down and went back to sleep. Upstairs, his brother Matthew was still sleeping after the detectors had been on for about six minutes. We went upstairs and turned on the detector in his room, holding it near him. Finally about two minutes later, he turned over then woke up, but he also went back to sleep.

"Yeah they moved, but to hear that noise and know that noise, you think you would jump out of the bed and know it's a fire and want to get out," said their father, William Walker. "But they sat up and laid right back down, and the youngest one covered his ears. It's scary. We put our trust in these smoke detectors and they don't work for kids."

We let William and his wife Wendy look at the video of our test.

"I can't imagine anybody sleeping through this," Wiiliam said. "We put our trust in these smoke detectors and that's all we hear about is putting them in all the rooms, but they aren't working and we never would have thought this if y'all wouldn't have done this test."

This is only the fourth time a TV station has conducted this test. It's been done in Minneapolis, Dallas, Portland and now Savannah. And each time, the same results. The children don't hear smoke detectors. We did speak with a sleep expert, who explained why kids don't wake up. That's coming up in the next story of this series.

Reported by: Dawn Baker,