There is an unspoken secret going on around us. For many years, lobbyists, hearing loss advocates and governments told us that solutions exist to help people with hearing loss in the case of an emergency.
Local fire stations and retailers promote and sell visual alarms as a solution to alert people with low hearing or deaf individuals in the case of a fire. In addition, lobbyists have pushed to regulate visual alarms in commercial and residential buildings in a campaign to protect people from fire. In provinces like Ontario in Canada, visual flashing lights alarms are part of the building code, and to be installed in every room for newly built buildings by law.
Unfortunately, visual alarms may be doing more harm than good. Many studies concluded that strobe lights, used in visual alarm systems, alone do not wake up sleepers. Only one-third of sleepers, both hearing or those with hearing loss, would wake up in the case of an emergency. Studies even placed the flashing strobe lights next to the sleeping person and the results were still ineffective. These are the fire alarm systems that are sold to us as effective when it is not true.
While this is one damaging reason to why visual alarms alone do not work. This article highlights to you why visual alarms may not work for some people. Perhaps, you may identify from your own experience where visual alarm did not work for you. It would be worth sharing with us in the comment below.
Visual alarms are lights that are blaring at different intensities. They can be sold in different colours, flashing patterns and lights. However, light alone is not adequate to alert you to an emergency or inform you someone knocked on the door. Here are a few reasons why they may not work.
In a bright room, the flashing light might not trigger any response. The reason is that the sun’s natural light is intense that the flashing light gets blurred in the background. The flashing light does nothing to make itself visible in the sunlight and doesn’t do enough to get your attention.
Light bulbs that are flashing and used for alerting are less effective than strobe lights. Studies have shown that strobe lights at a particular intensity and white colour or clear are much more effective.
Visual alarms alone, performs worse for hearing people than people with hearing loss. In a study to demonstrate the effectiveness of visual alarms, they found that the visual alarms that met the American Disabilities Act recommendation of being 75 cm away from the pillow did better (but still not effective) to wake up people with hearing loss than those who can hear.
Hearing loss allows us to use our visual senses. The visual alarm is needed to be in our view to be effective. The placement of visual alarms can make all the difference if someone can see the alert or not.
Newly built residential buildings and commercial spaces now have a central fire alarm system. Fire alarms on different floors of the building can communicate with each other to alert residents. In older residential buildings, that is not the case. The decision to replace the fire alarm is of interest alone. The building codes do not require updates to fire alarm systems as long as the fire alarms are working. Most building owners or property management prefer not to invest in the additional cost to bring an electrician and purchase the visual alarm system. Therefore, the visual alarm in the unit will only be relevant to the apartment or condo unit, and the smoke alarm in the common area is out of sight and will be unknown to someone with hearing loss.
Your local government may legally require fire alarms or smoke detectors in the hallway or stairwell, depending on where you live. Should you replace the fire alarm with a visual flashing alarm, the visual fire alarm is out of sight unless you are standing in that area all day. Bedrooms and bathrooms with closed doors will do nothing to alert you. Furthermore, if the visual alarm is inside the room but behind you in a room, you won’t notice any alerts.
There are people with multiple disabilities that cannot use visual alarms, and some are not protected or have equal access at all.
Having a visual alarm can trigger people with epilepsy because of the intensity and frequency of the flashing lights. Some people with epilepsy are prone to go into a seizure when lights are flickering because of the contrast of dark and light. However, people with and without epilepsy may react by feeling unwell with nausea or headache from the flickering lights.
People who have both hearing and vision loss may not use the visual alarm system because it requires a certain level of light intensity to be effective. Unfortunately, our laws and building codes do not protect them at all. Independent people who are deafblind do not have the freedom to manage independently because they will always need someone by their side in the case of an emergency.
While a death in the case of a fire may be a rare event, most of us live under the condition that we will be safe and protected. But the truth is that we live in a world that prioritizes commercialism and profit over the few who are not worth the investment. Our life may not be a priority for others, but it should be a priority and choice for us to decide.
This article has intended to highlight and educate you about the effectiveness of visual alarms. The fact that visual alarms are not effective on their own may shock you. If you have mild hearing loss, you may benefit from 520 Hz sounding alarms which are not widely sold in department stores. For the rest of us with a more severe hearing loss, haptic, vibration, or shakers devices will most benefit us throughout the day.
Information like this is a reminder of how vulnerable people with hearing loss are regarding our safety. Transparency should be a priority in our community. And more the reason why Lisnen is here to make improved changes for our community.
The article referred to information from customer discovery, interviews, academic research and personal experience from the founder of Lisnen.
Bruck D, Thomas IR. Smoke alarms for sleeping adults who are hard-of-hearing: comparison of auditory, visual, and tactile signals. Ear Hear. 2009 Feb;30(1):73-80. doi: 10.1097/AUD.0b013e3181906f89. PMID: 19125029.
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