Product safety experts are taking a second look at the effectiveness of smoke alarms, specifically how to improve them to ensure children are awakened when the alarm sounds.

Last year television news programs in Milwaukee and Fort Worth revealed that after nighttime fire drills, some children slept through the shrill alarm that sounds when smoke is detected.

Medical experts say kids under 10 are more difficult to awaken because they sleep more deeply than adults.

Children in this age group spend as much as 30 percent of their sleep time in what experts call "slow-wave" sleep, meaning increasingly slow brain activity. Adults spend closer to 10 percent of their sleep hours in this state, and are much more likely to awaken to smoke alarms, which are required to sound at 85 decibels from 10 feet away.

But some kids will sleep through an alarm as loud as 120 decibels -- the threshold for hearing damage in humans.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has already launched a two-year study to answer some of these questions. And Underwriters Laboratories (UL), a not-for-profit organization that certifies safety requirements for a range of products, put together a committee to come up with issues that need to be addressed.

Despite the question of the effectiveness of alarms awaking children, both groups underscore the continued need for smoke alarms in the home and the importance of making fire escape plans with the knowledge that kids might sleep through them.

"While future research may lead to the development of smoke alarms that are more effective in awakening children, current smoke alarms are a critical component in preventing injury or death in home fires," said UL spokesman John Dregenberg.

UL offers the following tips for parents and caregivers:

  • Install at least one alarm on each floor and outside all sleeping areas. Some fire safety experts recommend installing alarms inside each sleeping area, too.
  • Develop a home fire escape plan and practice it at least twice a year. Make sure all your family members are involved in the drill.
  • Take into account that children, older people, and people with special needs may not hear the alarm. Make your escape plan accordingly.
  • Test and maintain your alarms at least once a month, or follow the manufacturer's instructions. The chief cause of failure of alarms is due to missing, dead or disconnected batteries. Replace the batteries at least once a year.

    In addition, the National Fire Protection Association urges you to replace your smoke alarm if it is more than 10 years old. The NFPA says aging smoke alarms don't operate as efficiently, and they are more likely to trigger nuisance alarms. Plus, replacing after 10 years gives you a chance to install upgraded, more efficient models.

    You should replace your alarms if you move into a new home because you probably won't be familiar with the detectors' histories, the group says.

    "Simple steps like maintaining smoke alarms and replacing older ones help diminish the possibility of fire deaths in the home," said John R. Hall Jr., NFPA's assistant vice president for fire analysis and research. "Smoke alarms in the home are largely responsible for the decreasing number of home fire deaths over the last decades."

    Fire is the second leading cause of unintentional deaths in the home, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. More than 3,200 people die in residential fires every year, and more than 390,000 house fires are reported to the authorities.

    Furthermore, most house fire fatalities occur between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., underscoring the need to ensure your smoke detectors are functioning properly so you're awakened if a fire is ignited in your home. Both the CPSC and the NFPA urge homeowners to conduct smoke detector tests and replace batteries when you change the clocks back an hour and go off daylight-saving time Oct. 26.

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