Smoke Alarms: Waking Up to The Shocking Truth

    They're images we'd like to forget... blackened homes, lives lost, families torn apart.  Last February, two young children died in a house fire in Steele, Missouri.  Just a little later in the month, yet another fire claimed the life of an 18-month old baby in Greene county.  You may remember the first started when the family was sleeping.

Tonight, a story that will have parents thinking twice about how well they're protecting their children from fire.  We've long known the importance of having smoke detectors installed in our homes.  They save lives everyday.  But, could the kind we use make a difference?  And when it comes down to precious seconds, will these alarms get your child's attention in time?

It's 5:15 a.m.   The smoke detector sounds at the Miller home.   Thirty seconds pass by, a  minute...even two minutes pass and not one of their children stir from their beds.   Their parents are shocked...

"Two minutes.  That's a long time," said Jonesboro Fire Chief Kevin Miller.  "When a smoke detector activates, you usually have anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute to become alert enough to get out of the building. Two minutes and you're not even awake?  A fire can progress a lot in two minutes."

And he should know.   Kevin Miller has been a firemen for 20 years.  His children, more so than anyone, know the drill.

"What do we do if the smoke alarm goes off and we're in bed asleep?" asks Miller as poses questions to his children.  "Get out of our bed and crawl outside."

We met 6-year-old Montgomery and his sister, 17-year-old Madison a week prior to our morning smoke alarm test.  Both knew what to do in case of a fire.

"I'm upstairs with no windows so I kind of have to come down the stairs and crawl," said Madison Maddox.

Montgomery chimes in with his own fire instructions:  "Crawl. Go to the door," said Montgomery.   Diana asked, "After that?"  Montgomery answered, "Go to the mailbox."  Diana questioned, "Why the mailbox?"  Montgomery answers, "Because that's our meeting place."

After the children recapped their family fire safety plans, Diana announced to them, "We're going to come back and test your skills.  We're going to come back on a time that's announced and see how you do in an actual drill."

And as we found out, even with the best laid plans, the kids just didn't wake up when the alarm went off.

"It is scary. I guess it's a good thing that we live with a fire professional, " said Rhonda Miller. "The only thing that I can hope for is that it wakes us up."

And before it's too late.  You have to see just watch how quickly flames can engulf a living room.

"The quicker someone can get up and get out of the house," said Jason Wills, Jonesboro Fire Marshal, "The better the chances of that person surviving is going to be."

Every second.  Every minute can make a difference.  Scary enough to see that.  Now a burning question for parents everywhere.  Why do children sometimes not wake up to smoke alarms?

"You would be easy to arouse out of that stage, " said Dr. David Nichols, Sleep Medicine Specialist.  Dr. Nichols studies sleep cycles.  "In the younger children, there is more amount of non-REM sleep with the deep sleep component part of it and that may be part of why there is this difference."

All night long we cycle in and out of different levels of sleep...but children tend to go through more deep sleep patterns than an adult.

"There is a maturation process in the brain as we go from infancy into adulthood and the sleep pattern that goes along with it, explains Dr. Nichols.

So can we arouse those deep sleepers?

"Montgomery, this is Daddy."  It's the sound of a smoke alarm pre-recorded with Fire Chief Miller's voice.  On the same morning, just minutes after the other smoke alarm failed to wake the sleeping children, we put this on to the test.

Again, one minute passes and neither child moves a muscle to get out of bed.   At 1:45, Madison begins moving around.   Two full minutes and fifteen seconds later, she's finally down the stairs.

But there's still no sign of Montgomery.  Surrounded by tiny fire engine toys, he continues to sleep. His parents terrified by what they're seeing.  They even bring the alarm into his room. Still nothing.

"O.K. Nothing," said Miller with concern.  "The worries me. It scares me. I just don't know." Over 50 percent of child fire fatalities occur when the children are sleeping.  That's a scary thought of any parent.

"We're coming up on three minutes,"  announced Diana, as she looked at her watch.

"This really scares me, said Rhonda, Montgomery's mother. "The only comfort that I have is knowing that he won't ever be alone and I hope that we would wake up to the alarm.  But that's not necessarily true for the girls because in the summer when we leave to work, we usually leave them in bed asleep.  And fire knows no time. That's scary."

It was scary enough for Rhonda not to let up.  She is determined to try and see what will wake Montgomery up.   She wonders aloud, "Could my voice make a difference?"

"Montgomery, it's Mommy!" yells Rhonda.  "Wake up!"

Finally, more than five minutes after we sounded the second alarm, Montgomery wakes up, still groggy and unsure of his surroundings.   A few more minutes and he is out of bed.  Safely in dad's arms, he realizes there's no danger.   But what about next time?  Could the fire be real?  And would these kids wake up in time?