Smoke alarm research may help to save children’s lives

  • Study shows children respond to different smoke alarm tones and frequencies than adults
  • Boys and girls appear to be woken by different combinations of sounds
  • Families being asked to take part in trial of a new smoke alarm sound

Researchers from the University of Dundee are seeking hundreds of families to help them trial a new smoke alarm sound aimed specifically at waking children.

The number of lives lost as a result of fires has fallen by half since home usage of smoke alarms became widespread. However, there is evidence to suggest that some children do not wake to commonly used smoke alarms.

This has prompted a research study by Professor Niamh Nic Daeid of the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID) and her research student Dave Coss, a fire Investigator and Watch Commander with Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service. The project is also supported by Derby Housing and smoke alarm manufacturer Ei Electronics.  

The research showed that children respond to different tones and frequencies of alarm than adults and that boys and girls are wakened by a different combination of sounds. The research team investigated different sounds and found that a low frequency intermittent bleep-rest-bleep pattern followed by a recorded spoken message appeared to be effective in waking up both boys and girls, with preliminary tests indicating a 90 per cent success rate. 

The researchers are now asking families to take part in what will be the largest citizen science project ever attempted in this research area.


Professor Niamh NicDaeid said, “We know that smoke alarms are vital in making our homes and communities safe in the event of a fire. Our research has demonstrated however, that the current smoke alarms used do not always wake children from sleep.

“The first stage of the project tested 34 children, both boys and girls, of varying ages, to see if they woke when a smoke alarm was activated. The tests were carried out in the family home and 80 per cent of the children, including all of the boys slept through the alarm. Protecting our children in the event of fire is so fundamentally important that we want to involve parents and their children in expanding this research.

“Most work in the area has been carried out using relatively small numbers of children and usually in sleep laboratories. We want to make this much more relevant to the real world and undertake the tests in the familiar environment of the child’s home and so we are appealing for volunteers to help us.  I can’t think of a better way of bringing University research and public interest together.

“We are looking for 500 volunteer families to work with us on this project and become part of our CAHID research community.  We will send volunteers full instructions on how to get involved and will help them to run the tests and explain how to send us their results.”


A second project led by CAHID, and featuring colleagues from the University’s School of Medicine, NHS Tayside and the manufacturing and design sector will attempt to understand why children sleep through some sounds and wake to others.

Rodney Mountain, from the University’s School of Medicine, said, “Children’s hearing ability, brain function, sleep patterns and stage of brain development is very different to adults.

“Our team of ENT surgeons and neurologists do not believe that hearing ability plays a major part, but think that the answers probably relate to how children’s brains perceive, interpret and respond to sound while they are asleep. The answers to these questions will be found through future research together with consultant neurologist, Dr Ian Morrison and colleagues at NHS Tayside.

“Beyond that, an interesting answer probably lies at the level of our human evolutionary response to potential danger. We are programmed to respond to human voices warning of danger, such as a mother’s voice shouting to warn a child. Children are not born pre-programmed for our modern world of danger warning sounds from digital beeps and sirens – they have to learn, recognise and interpret these sounds.”

The research partners have emphasised that current smoke alarms remain a valuable part of protecting against the dangers of fire and have saved thousands of lives.

They added that:

  • Children should never be in a house without a responsible adult being present.
  • As part of any Fire Exit Plan, the adult should wake the children
  • Ei Electronics, a sponsor of this Research, is developing a low-frequency(520Hz) sounder which can be accompanied by a recorded voice warning, ideally that of the mother.

CAHID was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education 2014. It is one of the world’s foremost institutions for the study and application of human anatomy, forensic human identification, disaster victim identification, forensic science research and forensic and medical art. The Centre attracts students from around the world.

In 2015 the University of Dundee was granted £10million to establish the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science, which is led by Professor Black and Professor Niamh Nic Daeid. The Centre is dedicated to stimulating the research and evidence base for forensic science.

For more on forensic science at Dundee see

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