Young adults have trouble waking to emergency alarms after using alcohol

Published on July 26, 2007

Study examines effectiveness of alarms for the alcohol impaired

July 26, 2007 - Young adults impaired by alcohol were less likely to wake to emergency alarms, according to a study just released by the Fire Protection Research Foundation. The effectiveness of most sounding alarms decreased when individuals were alcohol impaired and asleep; alternative non-sounding methods were found not to be effective for waking this group.

Studies across young and middle aged adult groups have consistently shown that alcohol impairment is a key factor in over half of the fire fatalities in the US, UK and Australia. The Fire Protection Research Foundation study, Waking Effectiveness of Alarms for the Alcohol Impaired, examined how alcohol consumption influenced the waking effectiveness of several auditory and alternative signaling devices on a group of 32 young adults aged 18 to 26.

“Being alerted to an emergency is a vital first step in being able to survive it – studies like this one provide valuable information that will surely impact improvements in fire alarms in the future,” said Kathleen Almand, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.  “Many people that are under the influence of alcohol die in fires – it is important to understand what works best when alerting someone to an emergency when they are impaired by alcohol and asleep.”

Some auditory signals were found to be an effective means of waking moderately alcohol impaired young adults from deep sleep. The study found that two lower frequency alarm sounds (400 Hz and 520 Hz) were significantly more effective than the higher frequency alarm sound (typically 3150 Hz) commonly used in smoke alarms and other alerting appliances. Using the minimum sound level (loudness) permitted by code for sleeping areas (assuming minimal background noise), these lower frequency alarm sounds proved sufficient to wake participants, most within the first 10 seconds.  

“Low frequency signals have been more effective for waking high risk groups in several similar studies which is something that we will be investigating in the future,” said Almand.

Alternative methods not effective in waking individuals were bed shaker and pillow shaker devices, which only awoke 58-65% of the group, used at the intensity level of the device as purchased. Strobe lights were also not effective with only 24% waking at the lowest strobe light intensity.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the best protection against injuries and loss caused by fire continues to be a properly installed and maintained smoke alarm.  Smoke alarms are largely responsible for the nearly 50% decrease in fire deaths since the late 1970’s.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation plans, manages, and communicates consortium-funded research on a broad range of fire safety issues in collaboration with scientists and laboratories around the world. The Foundation is an affiliate of NFPA.

NFPA has been a worldwide leader in providing fire, electrical, building, and life safety to the public since 1896. The mission of the international nonprofit organization is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training, and education.

Contact: Lorraine Carli, Public Affairs Office: +1-617-984-7275          

NFPA (National Fire Protection Association)
1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 02169-7471 USA
Telephone: +1 617 770-3000 Fax: +1 617 770-0700