Smoke Detectors and Kids: A Sleep Expert Speaks

For years, we've heard from firefighters how important it is to have a smoke detector in nearly every room of your house. It's good advice, but not everyone might hear it. We found out whether you hear a smoke detector or whether it wakes you from a sound sleep has a lot to do with your age.

The Walker, Graham and Colbert children showed us they knew exactly what to do when they heard a smoke alarm. But now their parents are reevaluating their fire safety plans after a test we conducted with a night vision camera and a fog machine while their children slept. We set off the smoke detectors at the Grahams around 11pm and waited nine minutes. Neither Gabriella nor Caroline woke up.

"That has to change the way you all have been practicing. They can't crawl on the floor if they can't wake up to do it," Mariella Graham said. "The little things that children do to practice getting out of their house in case of a fire...if they can't wake up to do it, a parent has to feel helpless."

Our test started at the Walkers' just before 10pm. We waited for five minutes before Brian sat up in bed. It took Matthew eight minutes to wake up.

"They sat up and laid right back down, and the youngest covered his ears. It's scary," said William Walker.

After eight minutes of a shrieking smoke detector, the Colbert kids didn't budge. Now their parents want to know why their kids aren't waking up.

"It's common for kids your kids' age are not receptive," Capt. Edward Harris of Savannah FD told us.

All three families we tested now know the best-laid plans are useless when the children can't hear the smoke detector. So we talked with Dr. Anthony Costrini, a sleep expert. He says it's beyond their control. Kids ten and under spend a much larger percentage of their sleep in stage three and four, which is deep sleep. During those stages, they can't hear anything.

"Some children sleep so hard that it is logical to expect that there are some children who won't hear an alarm. Those may be the children who are hard to wake up in the morning that require physical shaking to wake them," Dr. Costrini told us. "If you have a child who is a notoriously deep sleeper, then you need to have a better option than 'meet me in the backyard.'"

"I'm going to be the one who is responsible for making sure I wake up and get things done," said Mariella Graham. "I have to wake them up and get them out of the house. Certainly their lives come before mine...if I die in the process, so be it as long as I save them."

There is some good news. The older we get, the less time we spend in deep sleep. In the next story in this series, we'll have some tips for parents about what they can do to make sure their children can get out alive in case of a fire.

Reported by: Dawn Baker,