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Fire alarm

ST. CHARLES COUNTY • When the school year began for students at the new Francis Howell High School, senior Alison Dunaway noticed something different about the fire alarms.

They seemed loud. Really loud, said Alison, who first noticed the difference from the old building during yearbook distribution day before the school year started.

"I got a migraine. And I was just thinking. If this is doing this to me, what it's going to the other students?'" Alison said. "It seemed to be affecting everyone."

And she wondered about the potential damage the loudness of the alarms could do to everyone's hearing, especially students who already had hearing problems.

So the student newspaper, Spotlight, took on the issue. Staff members used an iPhone application and another meter to test the sound level in the new academic wing, studied what was considered safe and decided to write about it.

The student journalists at Spotlight think their coverage of the issue helped make a change at the high school. The story ran Sept. 28, and during Christmas break, the fire alarms were adjusted to a lower setting.

On at least three different days, the student journalists said they found the alarms were producing decibel levels that were potentially harmful and too loud, according to National Fire Protection Agency standards. They compared the sound to new tornado sirens tested in St. Louis County at a 70-decibel blare with a range over a mile.

Alison and others found some measurements of 120 decibels for the Howell alarms at their school.

Kevin Supple, an administrator for Francis Howell, said that the district asked the architect to have professionals test the fire alarm sound levels. Before the story ran, the district was investigating the level, he said. Officials were trying to determine whether adjusting the setting was safe for emergencies, he said.

Once the building was complete, a change in code allowed for a lower decibel level, Supple said. The fire alarms, as installed, met the 2003 International Fire Code sound levels and were approved by the Cottleville Fire Protection District. Cottleville recently adopted the 2009 code, which allows for reduced sound levels, he said.

The alarms have three settings, and they had been on "high," Supple said. They've since been changed to "low."

"I'm happy that the students were able to do some investigative reporting," Supple said. "The newspaper wrote an article on something that was a concern to them and I think that's great."

It feels like high school journalism can make a difference, Alison said. Her time spent on the story included reading a 900-page document on safe decibel levels. But it was worth it, she said.

"The story consumed my life," said Alison, who plans to pursue journalism at Kent State University. "I had all of these people telling me not to waste my time."