Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), the world's foremost safety testing and certification organization, held a Standards Technical Panel (STP) meeting on March 7, 2003 at its Northbrook, IL, U.S. headquarters to discuss issues relating to why some children might not awaken when a smoke alarm sounds.
The issue received national attention in November after television stations in Milwaukee, WI, U.S. and Fort Worth, TX, U.S. coordinated demonstrations with local families and fire departments to gauge effectiveness of fire evacuation plans. Reporters were surprised to find that some children slept soundly through activated smoke alarms. As a result of the meeting, the STP set up two ad hoc working groups.
The first, comprised of pediatric sleep experts, safety engineers, government officials and manufacturers, will gather information and make proposals for future research designed to better understand the physiological and technical aspects of the issue. The information the group gathers is expected to lead to new research that could provide the basis for changes to the way smoke alarms operate and/or the way in which they are installed and used.
Performance of smoke alarms is addressed by two UL Standards for Safety -- UL 217, Standard for Single and Multiple Station Smoke Alarms; and UL 268, Standard for Smoke Detectors for Fire Protective Signaling Systems. The installation, use and maintenance of smoke alarms are addressed by the National Fire Alarm Code -- NFPA 72, Chapter 11, Single- and Multiple-Station Alarms and Household Fire Alarm Systems.
The second working group, comprised of members from UL, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fire prevention and education specialists, and manufacturers, will develop educational and publicity campaigns to raise public awareness of smoke alarm and fire safety issues.
Both groups will report back to the STP by May 30, 2003.
"Based on what we heard from pediatric sleep experts and fire prevention officials, there might not be a single answer to this complicated issue," said John Drengenberg, UL's manager of Consumer Affairs and moderator for the discussion. "It seems clear, however, that some children, especially young children, may at times sleep so deeply that it may not be possible for the alarm alone to arouse them to the point where they can reliably evacuate a house on their own. If, and until, a technological solution can be found, public education on the issue will be a pressing concern for the fire safety community."
Mr. Drengenberg and fire officials at the STP meeting emphasized that smoke alarms -- when maintained properly -- continue to save lives every day, and that consumers should consider them a reliable "front-line defense" against fire. "Since the introduction of smoke alarms to consumers in the 1970s," he said, "the home fire death rate in the United States has dropped by half. In fact, 50 percent of all fire deaths occur in homes with no working smoke alarms."
The information accumulated at the UL STP meeting will be shared with the Underwriters' Laboratories of Canada (ULC) Subcommittee on Smoke and Heat Detectors and Alarms, which meets to discuss the issue with Canadian authorities at its upcoming April 16, 2003, meeting in Toronto, Ontario.
Participants offering input at the March 7 STP meeting included representatives from UL; ULC; the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC); National Fire Protection Association (NFPA); National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); Illinois Fire Safety Alliance; state fire marshals and fire fighters; manufacturers; consumer advocates; regulatory authorities; and pediatric sleep experts from Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, Sleep Medicine Center at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago and The Johns Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center in Baltimore.
As part of UL's and ULC's open process of standards development, UL's Standards Technical Panels and ULC's Subcommittees are consensus bodies of individuals representing consumers, government agencies, regulatory authorities, manufacturers and other knowledgeable interested parties that develop and maintain effective product safety standards. Membership and participation is open to all persons who are directly and materially affected by the UL STP and ULC Subcommittee topics, although membership may be limited by rules governing panel and Subcommittee balance.
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