I have always had a healthy respect for fire. I suppose this is not unusual, although nowadays fire is not a regular component of our daily lives, so its presence awakens something that alternates between fascination and fear. Something atavistic. Fire –especially unexpected fire- can produce panic; smoke –also if unexpected, or inexplicable- can have the same effect. Both are worthy of our attention, both should command our respect, our search for the source.
That’s why smoke detectors are so valuable. The two commonest detection systems would seem to be either ionization and/or photoelectric –the former, ionization, grew from an attempt in the late 1930ies to detect poison gas, but the advance of the technology did not make it widely available –or affordable- until the 1970ies. The optical variety matured around the same time.
The purpose of both smoke and heat detectors, as we all know, is to alert us to the presence of the potential danger by activating some form of alarm –something that either by sheer volume or unpleasant pitch will demand action. It should arouse us if we are asleep, or get us out of our chairs if we are not. It should be audible over whatever other sounds are present in the environment, and sufficiently different from them to concern us. Usually, smoke alarms have a frequency of around 3000-3200 Hz and need to reach 85 decibels at 3 metres.
Anybody who has ever heard their smoke alarm sounding when the toast burns in the kitchen can attest to the discomfort this incites. It is piercing and –at least for the hearing population- impossible to ignore. Enough to wake the dead, as my mother used to say -but apparently not the child: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38918056 As the BBC article reports, ‘Researchers at Dundee say there are several theories they were exploring as to why standard smoke alarms may not wake children.’ One, however, has led to an interesting innovation. ‘Rodney Mountain, from the University’s School of Medicine, said: “Children’s hearing ability, brain function, sleep patterns and stage of brain development is very different to adults. We are programmed to respond to human voices warning of danger, such as a mother’s voice shouting to warn a child. Children are not born pre-programmed for our modern world of danger warning sounds from digital beeps and sirens -they have to learn, recognise and interpret these sounds.”’
So, the researchers wondered whether the sound of a woman’s voice –a mother surrogate, essentially- might trigger a child’s arousal more effectively. ‘Research by Dundee University and Derbyshire Fire and Rescue found that of 34 children tested, 27 repeatedly slept through smoke detector alarms. They have developed an alarm with a lower pitch and a woman’s voice, which issues a warning: “Wake up, the house is on fire.”’ And, instead of the terrifyingly strident, ear-piercing pitch, ‘the prototype has a lower pitch of 520Hz, to which young children are more likely to respond.’
Of course, this approach is still in its experimental phase and ‘The researchers said it was important the study did not undermine the need for every home to be fitted with smoke alarms, as these will wake adults and had a proven record in saving lives.’
Several weeks after reading this article, I happened to be over for dinner at the house of an old friend. We were sitting in the living room enjoying a glass of wine before eating when the smoke alarm suddenly activated. Apparently some grease on the stove had started to smoke.
“Well, the alarm did its job, didn’t it?” she said, laughing and filling up my glass again when she returned. “It’s amazing how annoying they are. You can’t ignore the alarm –you just can’t!”
I chuckled and told her about the BBC article I’d read about the alarm failing to rouse children.
The smile never left her face even when she had another a sip of her wine, but I could tell she was still thinking about what I’d said. “You know, that reminds me of something that happened when my son Jeremy was still around two years old…” She closed her eyes for a moment, savouring the memory. “We were over at my father’s cabin at the lake. Jeremy loved it there…” Her smile grew even larger and transformed her face. “It was so different from the city where we lived. Everything was new to him –the birds, the trees, the lake with Grampa’s little wooden rowing boat… He was usually so tired, it was no trouble getting him to go to bed at night. He slept in a little crib in my room, and rarely stirred even when I eventually came in to go to bed at night.
“Anyway one morning dad and I were sitting in the kitchen enjoying a cup of coffee while Jeremy was still asleep. He’d just installed a new smoke alarm because he used the fireplace a lot at night and I told him I was worried about the dangers of fire in a wooden cabin. I suppose he’d put it too close to the counter, or something, because when our toast began to burn, suddenly the alarm went off. The noise was so loud and high pitched it was painful and I had to cover my ears. I remember my heart started pounding and I actually felt faint.
“’The man at the store told me it’d wake me from a coma,’ dad said once he’d turned it off. ‘I’m surprised Jeremy isn’t crying.’
“Or out here,” I said. “Your crib is so low to the ground, I took the side off it so he could get out if he wanted.
“I went in to check on him right away; I’d left the bedroom door partially open when I’d gone into the kitchen, but he was still lying motionless in the crib like he does when he’s really asleep. I even remember standing at the door and watching him for a while –he was so adorable when he was sleeping…” She sighed and had another sip of her wine.
“I could see the gentle rising of his chest as he slept, so I knew he was okay. Dad started calling me from the kitchen to tell me my burnt toast was getting cold, and I can recall speaking Jeremy’s name in a normal tone of voice, telling him to wake up. Suddenly his eyes flickered then opened and a big warm smile filled his face…”
Martha turned her head to look at me, her eyes little sparrows flitting from cheek to nose and hovering over my face trying to decide where to land. “Do you think that’s what they were describing in the article?”
I smiled and added a tiny shrug. “A mother’s voice is so important, isn’t it?” I said, but realized as soon as the words emerged that it wasn’t a particularly profound observation.
She nodded her head and laughed. “Curious how my voice could wake him as a child but not as a teenager.”
“Who starves the ears she feeds and makes them hungry, the more she gives them speech…”
“Pardon me?” she said, giggling with the wine.
I enlarged the shrug. “Just a fragment of Shakespeare,” I said. “It means that noise isn’t as valuable as words… I’ve always wanted to use that quote.” I glanced at my own wine and smiled.