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Student Sonny White summarises his research into fire alarm systems for people with autism and sensory sensitivities.

My research considered four special schools, comparing their fire alarm systems. The four schools which took part in the research were Austen Academy in Basingstoke, Henry Tyndale School in Farnborough, Limpsfield Grange in Oxted, and Baycroft School in Fareham. At each school, I assessed the fire alarm system in terms of activation devices, resilience from malicious and false activations, means of giving warning (including sound levels of audible devices) and the effect of the existing fire alarm on students. I visited the site during the school holidays and reviewed the existing fire alarm, plotting devices on a layout plan of the building. I then set off the fire alarm and carried out a sound level test in each room of the school using a calibrated sound meter. Finally, I discussed with teachers and support staff at the school how the students react when the fire alarm goes off and what they need to do.

■ Sonny and his mentor, Fire Engineer Jacob Derrick, at Henry Tyndale School.

Most of the fire alarms complied with modern regulations and were able to function in a suitable manner, but installers for all four sites had not given adequate consideration to the occupants of the building, in particular their extreme sensitivity and adverse reactions to loud, sudden noises such as the fire alarm. However, they appeared to have taken care to reduce false alarms with newer equipment where the systems were replaced or changed. Sound levels were significantly higher than required in BS5839-1, so this could be reduced without the need to deviate from the standard. This is particularly significant given that exposing the students in these schools to excessively loud noise is likely to cause adverse reactions. Tones used across different sites varied significantly, with some sites having multiple tones for evacuation. The Standard Apollo Evacuation tone was one of the most frequently found in use at the case study sites. It is a clear and predictable tone, which does not change tone at a fast rate. This allows occupants to process each tone before changing, which can make the difference between a meltdown and a safe evacuation.

For those with sensory sensitivities, meltdowns caused by things like the fire alarm activating have a significant impact. It can take up to a week for the effects of the experience to subside and they may have to be collected from school after the incident—this affects students’ learning and makes it much more challenging for staff too. I wanted to find a way to make things better for them, particularly regarding fire alarm systems, which are there to protect us and keep us safe.I hope this research raises awareness of the issue of sensory sensitivity to fire alarms, and that designers will consider working collaboratively with school staff and students to better understand the needs of students and that they will consider PAVA (voice alarms rather than a tone) where possible. I would like to see designers demonstrating the different tones to building occupants and allowing them to have a say in the least affecting tone.

Sonny White

Sonny White, aged 18, was awarded a scholarship fund by the Institute of Fire Safety Managers. Applications are open until 31st July 2024 for fire related research funding for 2025.

Website: ifsm.org.uk

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