October is fire prevention month. While there are many ways to help reduce the likelihood of fires, one aspect of safety that is often overlooked is ensuring individuals with hearing loss are able to stay safe if a fire does occur.
Most smoke detectors are set to sound an alarm at 3100 Hz. In audiology terms, this is considered to be a high frequency. Although there are no regulatory standards, they are typically set to go off at a minimum of 75 dB. This frequency and volume can seem piercing for a person with normal hearing, but many people with hearing loss will not hear an alarm at this frequency and level.
A common hearing loss configuration is a high frequency sensorineural hearing loss. High frequency hearing loss can occur with normal hearing sensitivity in the low frequency ranges. In these cases, a person will be able to easily hear people talking – and likely even follow a conversation when facial cues are available – but still have a hearing loss that makes hearing a standard smoke alarm without amplification impossible.
Because of this, most smoke detectors will not provide the warning needed to help these individuals get out of their home or building before it’s too late.
In fact, in one study, only 56% of individuals with high frequency hearing loss woke up to a standard smoke alarm. Even at a louder volume, there were still 16% who did not wake up. And, since 40% of those who died in fires had working smoke alarms, there is good reason to believe that ensuring the alarm is heard could save many lives.
Many alternatives to standard smoke alarms have been developed including pillow shakers and strobe lights. But even these options do not wake up those with high frequency hearing loss more than 80% of the time.
Of course, for those who are completely deaf, these may be the only options. However, for those with high-frequency hearing loss, one alternative that has been shown to work is a smoke alarm that plays a lower pitched, 520 Hz sound.
In order to allow for a low pitch sound, these smoke alarms are larger than what is usually found in a home, but it would be well worth the cost if it saved the life of someone who might otherwise never hear the smoke alarm to get themselves out of the house.
If you know anyone who has a hearing loss and has a standard smoke alarm, please be sure to have them test to see if they can hear the alarm in their home. It would also be a good idea to test when they are in their room under normal sleeping conditions to see if the alarm is not just audible, but loud enough to wake them up.
If there is any doubt, make sure they are aware of low frequency smoke detectors. Please feel free to refer anyone you know to our office where we can help them move forward with a safe smoke alarm for them and their family.