Cumbered by a Deep Sleep



By Lynn N. Duke

NYT Regional Newspapers


Anna Marie Newson couldn’t believe it: For the second time in six weeks her five children were sleeping through the smoke alarm.


If the alarm had been real, and the children had been on their own, they all would have perished.


“We had a sense of security having the smoke alarms in the house, but it was false,” said Newson, who lives in River Hills, Wi. Newson and her family were part of a two tests in the fall of  2002 to get a sense of how easily children are roused by the screeching sirens.


“They performed much better the second time as far as what to do, once I woke them up, but they still slept through the alarm,” Newson said.


The Newson children, three boys and two girls, now ranging in age from 10 to 16, are not the exception. Anecdotal research shows that many children (by some accounts 85 percent) do not respond smoke alarms, even when it’s placed next to their ear.


“Arousal thresholds vary and become lighter and lighter as youngsters age, but they sleep much deeper than adults,” said Dr. Stephen Sheldon, director of the sleep medical center at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, and an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Stimulus required to rouse children to wakefulness and the ability to perform is much higher. Smoke alarms now require performance of a task to escape from a dangerous situation.”


This doesn’t’ mean smoke alarms are useless. Experts agree that they save lives and suggest that tests like the one at the Newson home simply reinforces the fact that parents must do more to make sure their children get out of the house.


Sheldon said often children awaken in a state of confusion, and can’t perform tasks, even ones they’ve practiced like a fire drill. And some suggest that it’s more important for adults to respond to the alarm, and then go get the kids to safety.


“Firefighters tell us that usually when they find a child’s body, they’re hiding – under a bed, in a closet,” said John Drengenberg, an electrical engineer and consumer affairs manager for Underwriters Laboratories, an independent, not-for-profit safety testing and certification organization. “They’re scared, and don’t know what to do, so they hide and they’re harder to rescue when they’re hiding.”


Experts agree that part of every family’s fire escape plan should include agreement on which adult will get which child to safety.


“You have to have a plan, and you have to practice that plan,” said Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council. “Just because kids are learning fire drills at school, and want to practice them at home, doesn’t negate the parental role in escape.”


Fire education, including practicing fire drills, helps children in several ways. First, if fire breaks out while they’re awake, they’ll know what to do. And even if they sleep through a smoke alarm and are rescued by parents or firefighters, knowing the drill should lessen their panic.


The elderly are also at increased risk at not responding to smoke alarms, according to Dorothy Bruck, a professor and head of the School of Psychology, Victoria University, in Melbourne, Australia.


“The main reason here is high frequency hearing loss,” Bruck said in a recently published paper.  “It is likely that at least 25% of those aged over 60 would not arouse to a hallway alarm and the risk increases with age.  In addition, the elderly are four times more likely to be regularly taking sleeping pills than the rest of the adult population.”


Since home smoke alarms were introduced in the 1970s, fire deaths have been cut in half in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In 2002, fire deaths in the United States fell below 3,000 for the first time since records have been kept. Of those deaths, half occurred in the 5 percent of households that are not equipped with a smoke alarm, Appy said.


“Most people underestimate their risk for fire,” Appy said. “They underestimate what really happens in a fire – how quickly it happens and how thick and black the smoke is. Time is really of the essence.”


But even among homes with smoke alarms, too many have dead batteries or have been disconnected. Safety experts recommend testing your smoke alarm monthly, replacing the batteries at least twice a year, and replacing the alarm itself after 10 years.


New houses are required to have smoke alarms hard wired into the electrical system, which removes the need to check the battery, but it’s a good idea to supplement these with battery-powered units throughout the house, in case the power goes out. Furthermore interconnecting the units – wiring the one in the basement to the ones near the bedrooms – can give you even more time to get out if a fire starts in a remote area.


Appy takes this one step further, suggesting homeowners, especially those building a new house, install a sprinkler system. “It adds about 1 percent to the cost of a new home, usually less than a carpet upgrade, and it can mean the difference between losing everything and saving most of your possessions,” she said.


Even if you can’t afford that kind of investment, properly maintaining smoke alarms and having a well-rehearsed plan costs nothing but a little time.


“Right now, the most important thing is that children can’t be left alone when sleeping and be expected to save themselves, even if they’ve practiced. Rescue is the way children need to be protected,” Sheldon said. “Parents should not be reassured that because children perform when awake (during a rehearsed drill), that they’ll be able to perform when roused from sleep.”