NFPA Journal®, July/August 2010
Two years ago, when Neil McDevitt was a volunteer firefighter, he responded to a call in his hometown of Montgomery Township, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. At one point, he noticed two of his fellow firefighters pointing at him. "I said, ‘What’s up, guys?’" recalls McDevitt. "One guy just looked at me and said, ‘That’s not bothering you?’" McDevitt, it turns out, was standing directly beneath an active smoke alarm. "I could barely hear the guy," says McDevitt, 37, who is profoundly deaf and wears a hearing aid, "but I couldn’t hear the fire alarm at all."
Like most people who experience hearing loss, high frequency is where McDevitt’s loss is most significant. That didn’t prevent him from performing the tasks of a firefighter, however, when he was one of only a handful of profoundly deaf emergency responders in the country. In his home, he relies on a separate alarm and notification monitor that listens to the tone of the fire alarm and then prompts a bed shaker and strobe light.
"Until now, the code’s answer to the hard of hearing in sleeping areas was high-intensity strobes," says Lee Richardson, senior electrical engineer at NFPA. A new provision in the 2010 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, however, gives the hard of hearing another tool—a low-frequency fire alarm they can hear. In jurisdictions that adopt the 2010 edition, the use of the low-frequency alarm signal will be required in sleeping rooms of homes and other locations where smoke alarms are installed for those with mild to severe hearing loss. The required signal is a complex low-frequency (520 Hz) signal instead of the higher frequency (3150 Hz) now widely used. Beginning in 2014, another new provision will require that all audible notification appliances used to signal an alarm in sleeping areas (and that are installed as part of a commercial fire alarm system in occupancies such as apartment buildings, hotels, and dormitories) use the complex low-frequency alarm signal.
These changes are a result of research sponsored by theFire Protection Research Foundation on the effectiveness of alarms for emergency notification of high-risk groups, including those with hearing loss and those who are under the influence of alcohol. The findings suggest that a low-frequency output may be more effective in waking these individuals than the widely used high-frequency alarm signal, or even high-intensity strobe lights.
These are things McDevitt thinks about on a daily basis as both a former volunteer firefighter and the current program director for the Community Emergency Preparedness Information Network (CEPIN), a project of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc., where he develops emergency training programs by bringing together first responders and people with disabilities. CEPIN was created under a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set the stage for collaboration among these groups at the local level before disaster strikes. (He’s pictured here at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia, making the American Sign Language sign for "alarm.")
McDevitt calls the switch to low-frequency alarms a "no brainer," and also praises a new provision in NFPA 72 requiring the use of "tactile appliances," such as bed shakers, in addition to high-intensity strobes in sleeping rooms where smoke alarms are installed for those who are deaf. Says McDevitt, "This is one of the biggest steps NFPA can take to make sure people wake up."
— Elizabeth Flynn
In this Section:
|NFPA + Disabilities: Where We've Been, Where We Are, Where We're Going
A look at some of the many efforts NFPA has undertaken to address the needs of people with disabilities.
Mother + daughter sprinkler advocates.
Transportation accessibility manager
Deaf and hard of hearing emergency preparedness expert.
Fire department chief.
Disabilities policy advocate.