Revisiting fire alarms for children with special needs

Current practices can hinder classroom evacuations, study says
Monday, April 20, 2015

STILLWATER, Okla.—Current fire alarms work fine for the general population, but they can cause big problems for students with special needs and for teachers who are charged with safely evacuating them.

Alternative methods would work better, according to Bryan Hoskins, assistant professor in the Department of Fire Protection and Safety Engineering at Oklahoma State University. Hoskins has been studying the issue. His report, “Fire Alarms and At-Risk Populations: Information from Literature and One-on-One Interviews,” was presented at the National Fire Protection Association SupDet conference in March.

“The current way of doing things can be even more disruptive for children with special needs on the severe end of the spectrum,” Hoskins told Security Systems News.

In special education settings, children with autism or emotional problems often “shut down or act out” when alarms blare and strobes flash, and “that can set off the whole classroom,” he said.

“I liken it to if you’re in surgery. You don’t want the alarm going off and the surgeon jumps,” he said.

The study said that as of the fall of 2012, there were more than 3.6 million students ages 3-21 with special needs, including hearing impairments, deafness, blindness, learning disabilities, autism, health impairments and emotional disturbances.

Hoskins’ study focused on elementary- and high school-aged students. Autistic children can be difficult to control when loud noises or unusual sounds suddenly appear; they may hide when frightened. Flashing bright lights can cause epileptic seizures. Children with emotional and behavior disorders often don’t comply with directions.

Those reactions certainly can hinder an orderly evacuation. A combination of strobes and alarms further escalates the problem, the study said.

There already are code exceptions for vulnerable populations, but for special education classes in particular, knowing that the students’ needs are being met and having trained staff is vital, Hoskins said.

Possible solutions include changing the color of special ed classroom strobes to blue or green, softer colors that research shows create a calming effect, Hoskins said.

That, he said, was the most surprising preliminary finding for him. “I hadn’t thought of that, it’s very interesting. We obviously have to look at that some more, do some direct testing to see if our impression matches what we actually see,” he said.

Slowing the frequency of strobes would help as well.

Instead of a single-sound alarm, an instructive voice alarm is preferred. In addition, vibrating furniture alarms might be considered.

These are preliminary findings and Hoskins plans to conduct further research. “Human behavior and fire is my main interest,” he said.

The current study was sponsored by the Fire Protection Research Foundation and was co-written by Hoskin’s student, Duane Helmberger.