Fighting fear of the smoke alarm

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Smoke alarms are vital resources in any home, but especially where children live. 2013 ended as the worst year for civilian fire deaths in Michigan that we haven’t seen since 1999. The rise in fire fatalities occurred in homes that didn’t have working smoke alarms. Sometimes the smoke alarm battery is removed because of a nuisance alarm (caused by cooking or steam from the shower), or when the smoke alarm “chirps” due to a low battery. These loud and unexpected noises often scare young children.

My friends from E.S.C.A.P.E. Fire & Safety offer these tips to introduce the sound of a smoke alarm and talk about fire safety to children early and often:

  • Talk about fire safety with your kids in their home, where they feel secure. It’s never too early to begin discussions about who firefighters are, what a family escape map is, and how and when to go to a neighbor’s house during a fire or smoke emergency.
  • Practice home fire drills on a regular basis. This can decrease anxiety and allow children to respond calmly.
  • Teach children that the smoke alarm gives an early warning so everyone can get out of the house safely.
  • Begin to practice by pretending the alarm has gone off, and have the child leave the house quickly and calmly.
  • Next, place a pillow over the alarm, or place duct tape or electrical tape over the horn of the smoke alarm to muffle the sound. Press the test button to activate the alarm and introduce the softer sound to the child.
  • Once the child is comfortable with the softer sound of the smoke alarm, remove the tape and allow him or her to hear the actual sound.
  • Set the alarm off on purpose and practice leaving the house again.
  • During fire drills, practice leaving the house from different rooms so children get used to doing so.
  • Practice a fire drill at night, after children have gone to sleep since some children may sleep through the sound of a smoke alarm.

If your child’s fear about the smoke alarm continues, especially when it’s activated in school, have a short meeting with your child’s teacher to explain the issue. The teacher may be able to devote extra class time to discussions about what happens during a fire drill. Often when students have the chance to talk about their smoke alarm fears with their classmates, they will realize it’s not as scary as it seems.

Finally, some children with a form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may experience sensory overload and may not be able to initially handle high-pitched noises, such as the sound of a smoke alarm. The blaring noise may prevent the child from thinking or comprehending the appropriate action to take and cause him or her to freeze or hide. A scared child won’t be able to learn and may not remember what to do during an emergency.  Again, to introduce children with ASD to the sound of a smoke alarm, try placing a pillow or heavy tape over the horn. Once the test button is depressed, the sound level emitted during the drill will be reduced and the child won’t experience pain and will less likely to become scared. There are even smoke alarms available where a parent can record their own voice into the alarm. During an alarm activation the parent’s voice will speak to the child alerting him or her to Get Out and Stay Out during fire or smoke conditions.

With lots of patience, positive reinforcement and encouragement, you can teach children ways to reduce the anxiety and fear from the sound of a smoke alarm. They will understand what to do and where to go during fire or smoke conditions.


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