Sleep Can Kill – Smoke unlikely to wake us in a fire

Last year, Fire and Emergency New Zealand ran a campaign where noses were photo-shopped out of images of a sleeping child, older woman and a baby with the words “When you sleep you lose your sense of smell” – arguably the message was a little lost in the impact of the slightly Voldemort-esque images, but the aim was to communicate how vulnerable people are when they are asleep. 

Rachel Herz, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University and author of The Scent of Desire, conducted research which indicated that people do not respond to odours (they tested peppermint and a noxious coal tar) while they are in the dreaming phase of sleep (REM) or deep sleep. She stated:

"Human olfaction appears insufficiently sensitive and reliable to act as a sentinel system."

This correlates with the belief that people won’t be woken by smoke in house fires, and highlights the importance of smoke alarms in homes and residential apartment blocks.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand have stated that in over 80 percent of fatal fires, smoke alarms are either not installed or not working. It seems New Zealanders are yet to believe in the importance of checking and replacing fire alarms.

Children are extra vulnerable

Research published in the Journal of Paediatrics showed that most children aged 5-8 years took over five minutes to wake up with a standard fire alarm, but woke in around four seconds to the sound of their mother’s voice.

“The thing that was most remarkable to us was to see a child sleep five minutes through a very loud high-pitched tone, but then sit bolt upright in bed when their mothers voice sounded through the alarm,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Gary Smith, who directs the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “We didn’t expect the difference to be so dramatic.”

These findings have led to the idea that a female voice may be a better alarm than a beeping for children, but in the meantime, it’s up to parents to ensure their children have responded to a fire alarm – and know what to do in a fire.

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