Hard of hearing more likely to awaken from sounding alarms

Published on July 26, 2007

Study examines effectiveness of audible and alternative non-audible alarms

July 26, 2007 - The most effective alarm to wake a sleeping person with mild to moderately severe hearing loss is one that sounds, according to a Fire Protection Research Foundation study, Waking Effectiveness of Alarms for Adults who are Hard of Hearing released in July.  

Several auditory signals and a variety of alternative alarms that employ methods other than sound, such as bed shakers, pillow shakers and strobe lights were studied for their effectiveness in alerting hard of hearing individuals of an emergency when they were asleep. (This study does not include testing of waking effectiveness for deaf individuals.)  Results showed that the standard audible emergency evacuation signal (a repeating pattern of three tones and a pause) with a lower pitch tone (520 Hz square wave) awakened 92% of the hard of hearing participants when used at or below the code-minimum sound level of 75 decibels (dBA) for 30 seconds. The same device awakened 100% of the participants when raised to 95 decibels at the pillow. It was also noted that participants that awoke to signals were most likely do so within the first 10 seconds of the signal being on. The lower pitch tone was found to be significantly more effective than the higher pitch tone (typically 3150 Hz) commonly used in smoke alarms and other alerting appliances.

“It makes sense that people at higher risk of not waking up to a smoke alarm, like those hard of hearing, might seek alternative devices that they feel are more likely to alert them in an emergency situation,” said Kathleen Almand, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. “Finding that an auditory signal at a low pitch is best for alerting even those mild to moderately hard of hearing will certainly prompt further investigation in this area and ultimately lead to better protection for this high risk group.”

Based on the study, the overall single best option for alerting people with mild to moderately severe hearing loss are low frequency square wave auditory signaling devices which surpass bed shakers, pillow shakers and strobe lights when presented alone.

“Interestingly, this is the latest in a number of studies focused on high risk groups that found low pitch alarms to be most effective for waking, an area that merits further examination,” said Almand.

Bed shaker and pillow shaker devices presented alone were successful in awaking 80-83% of the hard of hearing participants at the intensity level as purchased.  Strobe lights alone were not effective in waking this population with only 27% of participants waking to a strobe light intensity above the lowest level permitted by code for sleeping areas.

The study includes several recommendations for further investigations based on its findings.  

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