Rossen Reports

Kids can sleep through smoke alarms, experts say

March 22, 2013 at 7:34 AM ET

In a fire, you rely on smoke detectors to wake your whole family up. But will they? We conducted an eye-opening test.

It's hard to imagine anyone sleeping through the loud, high-pitched wail of a smoke alarm. But every parent knows: Kids can sleep through anything. So are those loud beeps enough to wake them up? We put smoke alarms and kids to the test. And what we found will take every parent's breath away.

It's a terrifying thought: Your house is on fire, and you can't reach your kids. The smoke alarm is going off, wailing. But believe it or not, experts say in many cases, young children will sleep right through it.

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Could that be true? We set up a test at a house in the Connecticut suburbs, home to the Hollander family, parents Michelle and Josh and their three boys: 9-year-old Duncan, 8-year-old Hudson and 4-year-old Sawyer.

First we installed infrared cameras in the kids' bedrooms. Then we told the boys what we were doing: a story about sleeping and smoke detectors. We even had a local fire captain give them a safety lesson.

But here's what we didn't tell the kids: that days later, we'd coming back in the middle of the night, as they slept, working with their parents to see how they'd react in a real fire.

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We watched them on a monitor downstairs. The Hollander boys were fast asleep, and our fire captain sounded the alarm. Would they wake up?

Seconds went by as the alarm loudly beeped away. Then a minute. Then two minutes. The alarm kept beeping, but the boys kept sleeping while we watched. Experts say that in a real emergency, their chances of survival would be slipping away.

The boys kept sleeping through the alarm for close to three minutes. The fire captain said they should have gotten up and out to safety by then.

When they finally did wake up, we asked them: "Did you hear that fire alarm going off? It was beeping so loud, right outside your room!"

"No," the boys answered. "Didn't hear it at all."

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"It would astound you at how loud the sounds can get and the children continue to sleep through them," said Dr. Gary Smith, a researcher at Ohio's Nationwide Children's Hospital who has been studying smoke detectors and sleeping children for years.

"They're biologically different than adults, and that's absolutely critical for us to understand when we're trying to prevent injury and death among children" Smith said. "They are simply not small adults. They're different biologically."

And that means they sleep differently. "Children spend more time in deep sleep than adults do, and that's why it's harder for them to awaken in the case of an emergency," Smith explained.

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That's why Smith says families need to map out an escape plan in advance. Make sure each adult has a designated child to wake up in a real fire.

And that's exactly what the Hollanders did after watching their kids sleep right through an alarm. From now on, mom Michelle Hollander said, "I'm running to wake them up, because they're not waking up without me."

Now researchers are taking it to another level, trying to figure out what will wake kids up in a fire. Tune into a special "Dateline" Sunday, March 24, at 7 p.m. (ET) to go inside a children's sleep lab, where scientists are testing some new alarm sounds you have to hear -- and see -- to believe.

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