Smoke Detectors and Kids: Finding a Solution - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

11/08/04

Smoke Detectors and Kids: Finding a Solution

If your smoke detector goes off tonight, would your children hear it? In an exclusive report last year, our Dawn Baker revealed the serious problem that could affect your family. Here's a look at what happened when we sounded the alarm last year and left families and the experts speechless.

It's hard for anyone to put the images out of their minds: children sleeping through the loud, annoying sound of smoke detectors. With the parents' permission, we conducted a test on seven children between the ages of 4 and 10.

Using a night vision camera and a harmless fog machine, we set off the Grahams' smoke detector around 11pm that night. Caroline sleeps within five feet of the detector. Gabriella within ten feet. We waited nine minutes; the girls never woke up.

At the Colberts', their three girls slept right through the sound of the smoke detectors, even though we put the beeping alarm right by their ears. After eight minutes, the girls didn't even turn over.

At the Walkers', it took five minutes before Brian rolled over and put his hand over his ears. Then a couple of minutes later, he woke up, but laid down and went right back to sleep. Upstairs, his brother Matthew was still asleep although the detectors had been on for about six minutes. We took the beeping smoke detector in his room. After we held it near his ear, just like his brother, he also turned over and woke up. But he too went back to sleep.

This test shocked all of our parents.

When new smoke detectors came out the following month that integrated the beeping sound with an automated voice that said the word "fire," we also put it to the test.

We went back to the Walkers' home. This time we turned on the new detector. Within one minute, Brian sat up in the bed, but he didn't try to get up. He went right back to sleep. We set the detector off again upstairs in his brother's room. It took about two minutes before Matthew woke up. But he, like his younger brother, laid back down in the bed. 

A few weeks after our test, we showed our results to the man over fire safety for the state of Georgia, fire commissioner John Oxendine "It's really remarkable that kids would sleep through it," he told us. "That's why it's a good thing to do fire drills at home at night. I think these children are hearing it, but it's not registering. Their ears are working, but their brain is so asleep it's not registering."

The new smoke detectors that the experts have been swearing by are different because they allow parents to record their voices and give their children instructions to wake up in case there is a fire. Oxendine felt confident it would not only wake kids up, but get them out of a burning home safely. So we put it to the test.

We tried it out and you'll be surprised what happened.

The MacMillans, like most families, have a fire safety plan. "We have talked about what to do if we're sleeping, which is the scariest time," said mother Nicole.

"If there's a fire, stop, drop and roll," said daughter Madison, 9.

"That's always a parent's fear is that in times of emergency, they would panic and not remember that," said Nicole. "My hope is that they would remember. Kids will panic. Some adults and parents panic. We've even talked about the worst case scenario."

So now it was time to put what they've talked about to the test. Just after midnight, we let Nicole record her voice on the detector. We put a night vision camera on the two oldest girls' bookcase in their dark bedroom. Then with the help of a harmless fog machine, we set off the new and improved smoke detector and heard Nicole's recorded voice: "Girls get up there's a fire! Girls there's a fire you know what to do!"

At first, we kept the door closed since they normally sleep behind closed doors. Then we opened the door and set the alarm off again. Within about 30 seconds the oldest daughter Madison sat up on the top bunk bed and called for mom.

"If there is a fire what are you going to do? Can you show us?" Nicole asked.

After nearly a minute of silence, we finally got a response from her and she indicated she'd go to the window.

Keep in mind while we were talking to Madison and setting the alarm off, her younger sister MacKenzie, 6, was still asleep in the same room on the bottom bunk bed. We set the alarm off again. It really irritated Madison, who started to cry.

But MacKenzie was still sleeping. We set the alarm off a fourth time and MacKenzie finally rolled over.

We asked her what would she do if there were a fire several times. She couldn't answer. In fact, she just started crying.

"That concerned me, too," said Nicole. "Especially since we had not only discussed it in the past, we discussed it that week and had discussed it that day and everything and they know what to do, but it's almost like putting it into action is not something they know to do."

When we peeked in on three-year-old McCall, she was still sleeping after more than five minutes. So we took the detector into her room. After nearly a minute, McCall sat up and slid to the edge of the bed. Even with some coaxing from her mom, it took more than three minutes to get her completely out of the bed and she didn't remember what to do.

Earlier that day, she told us how to get out of a fire. "Stop, drop and roll," she'd said.

But in the middle of the night, when she and the others were awakened from a deep sleep, they couldn't do it.

"My hope was all along that even if Mackenzie the six-year-old doesn't know...or doesn't wake up, at least Madison could be her guide and wake her up and tell her what to do," said Nicole. "But if Madison doesn't get up and do the right thing and she doesn't either."

That could spell disaster since fires double in size every 30 seconds.

"If you have a flame that's an inch high, 30 seconds from now it will be two inches high then four inches and compounds it," explained Officer Matt Stanley with the Savannah Fire Department. "It grows in height and width."

That's why it's so important for every family to start practicing with their children. Set off the smoke detector when the children are asleep so they can get used to the sound. We'll have more details on that tonight on THE News at 11.

Reported by: Dawn Baker, dbaker@wtoc.com

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