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Researchers have discovered that children between the ages of 2 and 13 are not normally woken by fire alarms, putting their lives at risk.

They have demonstrated that high-pitched buzzers should be replaced with lower tones combined with a woman’s voice.

Over 500 volunteer families have been requested to throughout the UK to take part in a study testing new fire alarm sounds when initial research showed that over 80% of children aged between two and thirteen did not react to a standard alarm.

Dave Coss, a fire investigator and watch commander at Derbyshire fire and rescue service, who is carrying out the study with scientists at the University of Dundee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The immediate thing we are saying to people is that if your alarms do go off then obviously, you need to go and fetch your children to make sure that they wake up.

“In the long term, what we are looking at here is a sound – and I think I need to stress the fact that it’s a sound and not a new detector – which we could have or could be adapted in the children’s bedroom so that if the smoke alarms do go off this sound would wake the children and give them those extra vital seconds to escape.”

Coss started researching after six children died in a Derby house fire started by their parents. Mick Philpott was jailed for life, convicted of manslaughter, and his wife Mairead was given a 17-year sentence. The youngsters, aged between five and 13, who died from the effects of smoke, were asleep upstairs when the blaze began at the house after midnight

Coss, who investigated the fire, said: “One of the problems we had to solve from an investigation point of view was why all the children were [found in] their beds, even though the smoke detector had sounded that time. Initially we thought that there might be other reasons. So obviously medical reasons were explored, toxicology tests were carried out, just to make sure there was nothing else, and the smoke alarm not waking them up was the only real solution that we could find.”

The suspicions were borne out by research Coss undertook with Professor Niamh NicDaeid, of Dundee’s centre for anatomy and human identification, which repeatedly exposed sleeping children to the sound of industry-standard smoke detectors inside their homes. More than 80% of the 34 children aged between two and 13 did not respond to the alarm. Only two children woke up every time and none of the 14 boys woke up at all.

“When we started to explore why this was happening and we looked at other types of frequencies of sound we found out that a lower frequency sound … combined with a voice – generally a female voice – was much more effective at waking children up, and in actual fact woke up 94% of children that we tested,” NicDaeid told Today.

The number of lives lost because of fire has fallen by half since home use of smoke alarms became widespread, and the researchers emphasised that smoke alarms remain a valuable part of protecting against the dangers of fire. But they hope that their research can lead to the development of new tones that will save even more lives.

NicDaeid said: “Most work in the area has been carried out using relatively small numbers of children and usually in sleep laboratories.” The researchers are now looking for 500 volunteer families with children between two and 16 to take part in the study.