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British Experts Smoke Out Hi-Tech Help For Fire Rescue

The Honeywell ExitPoint smoke signal.
by Staff Writers
Slough, England (AFP) Oct 08, 2006
"That's the difference between living and dying," said Professor Deborah Withington, referring to innovative sound technology that moments earlier had helped an AFP reporter to escape a darkened, smoke-filled room. US conglomerate Honeywell last week invited a group of journalists to test a sound device designed to speed up evacuation from buildings when the presence of smoke could obscure fire exits.

The product, which Honeywell recently launched following a decade of research by British universities, is activated by a fire alarm that triggers a speaker device called ExitPoint, which directs those trapped to the nearest escape route.

"My idea has been to use locatable sound for evacuation situations," said Withington, Professor of auditory neuroscience at the University of Leeds in northern England.

"We've done research over the last ten years on aircraft, on ships, in buildings and in tunnels showing that if you have this type of sound over the exit, in smoke, you cut evacuation time by 75 percent."

Honeywell constructed a purpose-built room at a hotel in the town of Slough, west of London, to allow more than 100 journalists to test ExitPoint.

First, each individual entered the room with ExitPoint switched off, leaving him or her to feel their way across walls to escape the room in which clouds of smoke blocked out almost all light.

When ExitPoint was activated, the exercise proved far easier, as a pulsing sound drew those trapped towards the fire escape.

"The part of our brain that responds to sound likes a pulsing sound," Withington said. "So all of this is based on science, the actual type of sound and the way it's portrayed."

ExitPoint uses so-called broadband noise -- sound that contains a large spectrum of frequencies and thus is easy to locate.

Broadband noise is found in nature, such as the sound made by rustling leaves and running water in rivers and waterfalls, which in the past has helped man spot danger.

"Over millions of years our brain responds to these types of sounds and as soon as we hear that sound we know where it is," Withington explained.

ExitPoint is a small speaker that is placed directly over an exit.

Honeywell declined to disclose its investment costs but said the product had undergone tests in Europe and the United States, notably in schools and hospitals.

The International Maritime Organization has meanwhile approved ExitPoint to be used on ships in place of emergency low-level lighting.

Reacting to news of the product, a spokesman for the London Fire Brigade told AFP: "Anything that enhances safety has got be a good thing."

A spokesman for The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents added:

"Fire can be a major problem in terms of accidents and the faster people can be warned of the fire and escape from the fire -- that has to be a good thing."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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