028: Alerts and Alarms

An overview of alarms and alert systems for the Deaf and hard of hearing that can actually keep us all safe!

028: Alerts and Alarms
Good Fit Poor Fit

Play/Pause Episode
00:00 / 21.13
Rewind 30 Seconds

Show Notes

Here are some products we discussed in this episode.

Fire Alarms:

Google Nest Protect

Fire Alerts

Lifetone Technology


Lighting + Alerts (Including Weather):

Phillips Hue

If This Than That

Weather Alerts:

About NOAA All-Hazards Radio 

How to use NOAA All Hazards Radio with alert devices

Other detectors for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities:


Sarah: You’re listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.

[00:00:23] Learn more at universaldesign.org. 

[00:00:27] Hi everyone. It’s Sarah. And today, Rebecca and I are going to discuss a question we received from a listener. We’ve talked about smart technology in the past, but our listener was specifically interested in alarms for those who are hard of hearing or Deaf. So here’s her question:

“Is there a smoke alarm device for the Deaf? I can’t hear my smoke alarm when I sleep. Is there any alarm for wildfires? I live in San Diego.” 

[00:00:58] I thought this was a great question as many people live with hearing loss and the integration of some of this technology may be helpful for others as well. Rebecca and I sought out some information from people we know that are Deaf or have hearing loss and combined the content for this episode with research we did on our own. We’re going to discuss some of the reasons why different technology and alerts may be needed as well as some of the devices we found that could help alert anyone of a fire, emergency, carbon monoxide levels, or just a nudge to get out of bed.

[00:01:33] We haven’t had direct experience with these devices to give you the pros and cons of them. But we wanted to let you know what’s out there so you can learn about them in more detail if you weren’t aware of these options on the market in the first place. Also, there’s lots of devices out there and we can’t possibly talk about them all here, but we hope this helps lead you in the right direction in learning more about this technology and what’s available for safety reasons.

[00:02:03] Rebecca: Exactly. So I guess we should  start by talking about an idea that you alluded to Sarah. Why is this technology needed? For whom is it helpful? My argument would actually be that it’s helpful for everyone since we all want to be absolutely certain we’re aware if there’s an emergency in our home, including those of us who may be really sound sleepers, or like to listen to music really loudly.

[00:02:26] But the question did come from a listener who was curious specifically about alert systems for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. So just a little bit of background information about that. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one in eight people in the United States, 12 years or older, have a hearing loss in both ears. 2% of adults aged 45 to 54 have a disabling hearing loss. And that number only goes up with age. On the other end of the age spectrum, it’s estimated that one in 1000 babies are actually born Deaf. There are also many things that can cause individuals to acquire deafness or a hearing loss, including, but not limited to infectious diseases and head injuries.

[00:03:12] Sarah: Those are really good points Rebecca. I actually know of someone  who had a horrible ear infection and lost hearing due to that. I’ll also add that there are a lot of people who become hard of hearing due to environmental conditions, such as going to loud concerts, operating loud machinery without ear protection and other workplace noises as well.

[00:03:35] Rebecca: Right. And we also have to consider the fact that everyone experiences age-related changes in hearing as well.

[00:03:42] Sarah: Most definitely. So before we dig deeper into that, I do want to mention a few tips shared to us by a friend that’s Deaf. First, when considering different products for people to purchase:

“If someone is Deaf, they need to make sure that they choose a product that has clear visual alerts. And for those who are hard of hearing, they need both strobe lights and sound. Second, you should follow building codes for placement and then make sure at least lighting alerts are placed where you can see them from anywhere around the house, even outside.”

Which I thought this was a really good point.

[00:04:20] So, if a fire alarm goes off in the house while you’re outside weeding, you can either see it from outside or have a small alert device that vibrates to alert you something is going on. These could be in the form of another device connected to you, or through your phone. He also suggested that at this point, he didn’t think he would wire anything into his house. This would make it more high tech and pricey. Plus difficult to change, especially if there’s going to be growing pains with all of this different technology. He suggests keeping things portable, to be able to move them around to another room or elsewhere as needed. 

[00:05:04] Rebecca: All of these ideas make a ton of sense, especially thinking about the placement of alerts and going high-tech versus low-tech.

[00:05:12] As we always say, it’s really about finding the best fit for you in your home. But with that in mind, let’s dive into some of these gadgets that could be helpful to keep us alert and safe. 

[00:05:23] First off, let’s talk about fire, smoke, and carbon monoxide alert systems. We looked into the Google product called the Nest Protect, which is marketed as an alert system for smoke and carbon monoxide.

[00:05:36] At the time of this recording, it costs $119. Sarah, what did you think were some of the coolest features that it has?

[00:05:44] Sarah: Yeah, I thought it actually had some pretty neat features. So, this product tests the batteries and sensors daily and does a quiet test of the speaker and horn one time a month. This is so helpful because I know not everyone tests their smoke alarm batteries regularly. I have heard the guideline is to do this on New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve to get into a routine of changing them yearly, to make sure they have enough juice and they don’t run out of power when you need them. 

[00:06:15] Rebecca: Yeah. I would even argue that this is a universally designed feature in this product because it’s simple and tolerant of error. So even if you actually forget to do that annual check, the system still has you protected. 

[00:06:30] Sarah: That’s a really great point. Another feature that kind of goes along with your UD principle of being tolerant of error is that this alarm doesn’t go off due to steam because it has a humidity sensor.

[00:06:43] We had this happen so many times in our old apartment. It’s quite surprising to hear that alarm when you are in the shower. It also has an audible voice that speaks to you and gives a verbal warning before the actual alarm goes off. So for example, it might say, “there is smoke in the kitchen” and it lights up with a feature they call a light ring that can change from green, yellow, or red for the severity of an emergency.  It also detects motion at night and actually lights up a flashlight of sorts, creating a pathway underneath the device. That’s so smart. 

[00:07:19] Rebecca: I think all of this is great. Especially the lights that you mentioned that come on at night. That would be really useful for everyone because navigating the halls at night to go to the bathroom can be tricky. I know in my house, we actually have nightlights plugged into our hallways for this exact reason. 

[00:07:35] But, of course my engineering brain wants to know, how could we make tech like this better? One thing that one of our team members here at The Universal Design Project mentioned was the idea of different color lights to indicate different types of emergencies. So the Nest Protect does have those green, yellow, or red lights to indicate levels of emergency situations, as Sarah said. But this team member also suggested it might be helpful to have other colors too. Maybe a blue light for carbon monoxide alerts?

[00:08:09] And I thought this was a really interesting idea. I personally also wondered if the alarm could include warnings for things like tornadoes or evacuation orders. In certain areas of the country, obviously these are more relevant, but I think it would be an important feature nonetheless, and could even probably be customized depending on your location.

[00:08:30] Sarah: I think these would be excellent additional features. There are so many parts of our country that experience hurricanes and fires, where this type of alert would be life saving if it was integrated to devices like this for anyone really.

[00:08:45] We’ll talk more about weather alert options later, but next I wanted to mention a few fire alert options. The Lifetone and Safeawake products.

[00:08:55] So these are two different products. They’re both very similar in that they detect the noise or alarm from your current smoke alarms. They create different types of alerts, including a low frequency sound, a visual flashing light, and have an attachment to vibrate and shake the bed. These could be helpful for people who are hard of hearing or Deaf.

[00:09:17] The Lifetone also has a loud voice command that tells listeners to get out. I’ll link both of these into the show notes. At the time of this recording, the Lifetone is a little bit cheaper at $240. And the Safeawake is around $300. So if you’re interested in these, read the materials on their site to learn more about them.

[00:09:38] Rebecca: I heard you mention that both of these have bed shakers, which is actually something that I just learned about from a friend who has cochlear implants. And I thought this was really cool. And also something that might be good for a lot of people. For example, my mom sleeps like a rock. So I actually think that we maybe should look into a bed shaker alarm for her.

[00:10:00] Sarah: Yeah. I know some heavy sleepers like this too, so I could see this would be helpful for them. 

[00:10:06] Rebecca: Yeah. And the idea of the flashing lights also reminds me of another piece of tech that we came across in our research called the Phillips Hue lighting system. Essentially it’s a whole home lighting system that can be hooked up to many different alerts signals, including alarms, baby monitors, doorbells smoke detectors, and you can control it through your phone by connecting it to your various alarms and you can make sure that you’re visually alerted to an emergency. 

[00:10:36] The Phillips Hue system has a number of features that many people could benefit from: mood lighting for a moving night, gentle light that wakes you up in the morning and puts you to sleep before bed, switching lights on when you’re not home to deter intruders… All of this is possible with this technology and is equally useful for everyone. I actually would consider getting one myself. 

[00:11:00] Sarah: I think you should. We actually have this system in our home and we use them quite a bit. One of the reasons we purchased it was because my husband does not have finger function due to his spinal cord injury. And he struggled to turn the lights on with the lamps in our house. So he would actually have to lift the lamp up, turn it over on his lap, and use both hands to twist the knob, which was quite frustrating. So with this, he can turn them on and off with his phone. Or we can talk to Google and ask Google to turn them on.

[00:11:34] We also turn the lights down in our daughter’s room so she can get ready for bed. Kind of some of that mood lighting you talked about and to try to get her in the mood to go to sleep. I think this type of technology is definitely universal in nature and has appeal to people for the variety of features it includes. While it provides assistance with alerts, it can also be used as regular lights with added twists of course. 

[00:12:01] Rebecca: Definitely. I think this system sounds like a really fun piece of home tech that has just the added bonus of being able to make people safer. 

[00:12:10] Sarah: One other thing I wanted to mention with these lights and specifically, within regard to our listeners question was about weather or emergency related alerts.

[00:12:20] There are a lot of other services that do this type of alert, but one we’ve heard about is called “If This, Then That” and it is a service that pairs with your smart light technology to create unique alerts that you can see through your lights. And I’ll link this into the show notes as well. 

[00:12:39] So, say you want your lights to turn a specific color and flash when a severe storm alert is coming, when it’s going to rain or get an alert via the lights, when a wildfire or tornado warning is issued. It’s basically as simple as downloading the “If This, Then That” app onto your phone or another device and setting it up to communicate with the weather app on your phone to activate the lights.

[00:13:04] You can also have it send a different type of notification too. Like an email or something else. We had a friend who did this when there was a Steelers game on and he had it activate the lights in the team colors when they scored a touchdown. Clearly, there are a lot of things you can set alerts for. There are even times where I wish our doorbell was connected to this, to our lights, because sometimes when we play music too loud around our house, we can’t hear the doorbell. 

[00:13:35] Rebecca: That is absolutely hysterical about your friend and his Steelers lights.  Perhaps one of the more dedicated fans I’ve heard of.

[00:13:42] Sarah: Yeah. And he actually did some other things as well, but then he did so many different alerts that he forgot what the alerts were for. So that’s actually a good lesson for all of us to not make it too complicated. 

[00:13:55] Rebecca: Yeah, that’s definitely a good point. I can see where it would be really easy to get carried away with this stuff and kind of lose track of the point with safety in the first place.

[00:14:06] Sarah: For sure. 

[00:14:07] So, one other option that I found when doing research for this episode about weather and alerts was through weather.gov from NOAA, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They discuss a weather radio, which is an NOAA weather radio all hazards, NWR, that is a national network of radio stations that broadcast important weather alerts from the closest office with the national weather service.

[00:14:40] So I was really curious as to how this actually worked. And this is what their website says:

“NWR offers nonverbal information embedded into its broadcast to provide timely, critical warnings of life-threatening events to the Deaf and hard of hearing. Some receivers are equipped with special output connectors that activate alerting devices, such as vibrators, bed shakers, pillow vibrators, strobe lights, and other alerting systems.”

NWR receivers can be programmed to set off an alarm for specific events — tornado, flash, flood, et cetera, and specific counties of interest to you. 

[00:15:20] I wasn’t really aware that this was even an option. I know that I typically hear about weather alerts over the bottom of the TV when things scroll past, and you hear that really loud beeping with that banner coming across with the written alert. But if you don’t have a TV on, how would you know? Especially for some of our older adults, as they might not get their information over a smartphone, like some other individuals do. So I’ll link this information in our show notes and you can learn more about it because they have a ton of information on their website.

[00:15:53] Rebecca: This sounds really interesting and particularly pertinent at the time of recording this episode because of all the wildfires sweeping across California. I actually have a friend who lives there and the last time they had really serious fires near her, she actually invested in an Apple Watch so that if there was an evacuation alert while she was sleeping, she could get the phone call, notifying her on her wrist with a vibration.

[00:16:17] She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to hear an alarm or someone knocking on her door if she were asleep, because she wouldn’t be wearing her cochlear implants. And I think it’s great that a solution, like the one that you just mentioned is available. But I also think it sounds like a lot of coordination among various pieces of technology and organizations. And I feel like that might be confusing for people. 

[00:16:41] As you said before, you certainly don’t want to overcomplicate things like this. And I really think this loops back to the idea that it’s about finding that best fit for you when it comes to keeping yourself safe. High-tech, low-tech or in between, it’s really about finding the options that fit best into your life and your routines. Like for example, the Apple Watch for my friend. 

[00:17:03] Sarah: Yeah, most definitely. And I am sure the coordination and collaboration between different organizations over the years has been essential in providing opportunities like these. Those advocating for those with impairments and those designing the technology have had to communicate really well to keep making these devices successful. Kind of like how we feel collaboration is necessary in our work for residential home projects. I had to throw that in here somewhere!

[00:17:32] Rebecca: Exactly! In the same way that you just mentioned tech companies collaborating with people who have insight into the diverse needs of users, we do this at The Universal Design Project by having project teams that include architects, designers, people with disabilities, caregivers, and healthcare professionals. 

[00:17:50] So, of course we know we can’t share every option with you, but we did want to mention a few other things that we’ve included in the show notes that might be helpful resources if you have more questions or want to do some more digging on this topic.

[00:18:03] We’ve attached three links to pages of detectors that emit particularly loud noises for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. One is from MaxiAids and that’s basically product descriptions.

[00:18:15] We also really liked the list on the “Be On Home” website because it outlines pros and cons and then the price for each unit and it’s really easy to follow. Harris Communications also has a lot of alert options, including weather devices, too. 

[00:18:33] We’ve also shared a few links to Amazon that are for standard smoke detectors that also have visual alerts and bed shaker alarms. 

[00:18:43] Sarah: Thanks Rebecca. So, as we wrap up, I wanted to share that I know we threw out a lot of content your way. But I really feel like this is an important part of making sure our homes are safe for a different variety of needs and for those that you love. So these types of alerts can really be beneficial for anyone and I think it’s really nice knowing that they exist. 

[00:19:08] Rebecca: Definitely. There’s already a ton out there and also a ton of possibilities for where technology like this could go in the future. But for now, I think it’s important to remember that technology can be great if it’s a good fit for a certain person or family. But high-tech, isn’t always the answer.

[00:19:25] It’s about finding what works best for an individual or a family within a home. You don’t necessarily need the newest technology as long as you have a setup that keeps you safe and works well in your space. This could simply mean a good, no frills alarm that is well-placed and grabs your attention in the event of an emergency.

[00:19:44] Sarah: Yeah, I agree. And while new technology can definitely look more sleek and connect to more things, it could get more complicated. Some of the older tech may look a little clunky, but it might just provide the alerts that people need and no more. 

[00:20:00] So I’m really thankful for our listener suggesting this topic for this episode. I know, I really learned a lot about all of these devices in the research that we did. And I look forward to learning from all of you as well, our listeners for different devices and systems that might work well for you and your family. 

[00:20:19] Also, if you have an idea for a podcast, listen to the end of this episode for a way to send us some ideas.

[00:20:27] So thanks again for joining us. And we really look forward to sharing more information with you again soon. Have a great day. Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com. If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected]

[00:21:05] Thanks for fitting us into your day!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *