Press release

BBC Watchdog Live showcases University smoke alarm research

Published on 12 September 2019

University of Dundee research showing that most children are likely to sleep through standard smoke alarms will feature in tonight’s episode of BBC One’s flagship consumer rights series Watchdog Live

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The research, undertaken in collaboration with Derbyshire Fire and Rescue services, 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.

Only 28% of children in the study woke to the standard alarm, while an alarm tested using a lower frequency sound combined with a voice recording woke over 75% of children

The Watchdog team repeated the experiment on eight children under the age of 10. Long after the children were fast asleep, their parents tested their existing smoke alarms for one minute. All but one child slept right through the alarm. The only child that showed any sign of being woken by the alarm got out of bed to get a teddy before going back to bed and falling asleep.

The original study was led by Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, Director of the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science at the University. She said it highlights the need for manufacturers of smoke alarms to put a warning message on their packaging about the risk of children not waking up in the event of fire, even when alarms are triggered.

“Our research has shown that current smoke alarms are not very good at waking up children,” she said. “We would ask manufacturers of existing smoke alarms to alter their packaging so that they reflect the outcomes of our work. We have now identified an alarm sound which is much more effective at waking children and our next aim is to develop innovative devices which will link to existing smoke alarms to improve fire safety for children.  We welcome any and all interest in helping us achieve this aim.”

The Watchdog Live test was supervised by fire investigator Dave Coss from Derbyshire Fire and Rescue, who worked with Professor NicDaied on the Dundee research.

Speaking to Watchdog presenter Steph McGovern, he said, “The two things that stand out for me are, first of all, the shock, the genuine shock on the face of the parents when they realise their kids haven’t woken up. Secondly, in a fire situation, time matters.

“Currently in legislation, one smoke alarm fits all. So there’s no requirement to make a separate one for children or a separate one for adults.”

Packaging on current smoke alarms does not carry any warning that children may not wake up if the alarm is sounded but parents whose children slept through Watchdog’s test joined Professor Nic Daeid in calling for manufacturers to make it clear that the smoke alarm might not wake children up.

Professor Niamh NicDaeid continued, “Smoke alarms are vital life-saving tools but manufacturers, fire services, local authorities, regulatory bodies and others with responsibility for fire safety must assert the message that they do not always wake young children and, as such, people must be advised to wake their children if their fire alarm sounds


Press Office, University of Dundee
Story category Public interest, Research