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My two smoke detector stories

by admin on October 22, 2011

A couple days ago my son was walking down the hall past my office when a loud beeping began sounding somewhere in our house. He and I have a tendency to fall into goofing off pretty easily, usually instigated by me on days when I’ve been working alone all day. So the sound of another false alarm inspired lame jokes by me about running for our lives and comments like “Oh no! She’s about to blow!” (Sadly, this is what passes for wit during the long afternoon hours at McKee Associates.) We followed the sound down the hall to his bedroom. When he got to the door he suddenly rushed in while shouting a certain expletive over and over. I quickly followed behind and saw flames one foot high dancing up from a sweatshirt on the floor by his desk. He scooped it up and I got out of his way.

“The bathtub!” I said, but by then he had committed to the laundry room sink, another fine choice. A turn of the faucet made quick work of it and the crisis was over.

Wesley had only a very minor burn on the side of one finger because the blaze had been confined to the middle of the sweatshirt, leaving the edges available to be grabbed. We returned to his room where the loud beeping continued. The air seemed completely clear to me, but that smoke detector knew better.

Wesley turned on his window fan and within a minute the beeping stopped and a calm returned. I pressed him for details and learned that he had a minor moment of playing with fire, an impulse I also had while growing up and understood. He seemed sufficiently chastised. The carpet looked fine. I noticed how close the flames had been to the corner of his wood desk and then I looked up at the smoke detector and suddenly experienced admiration, even a strange happiness, just to look at this ordinary six inch piece of plastic with its little red button to one side. We had just narrowly avoided disaster, and it was due to a ten dollar plastic appliance that’s usually known for its annoying chirping when its batteries get low. 

I felt a need to talk it out, assuring Wesley that my excitement wasn’t because I was angry, but rather because I was giddy that things had worked out so well. The system had worked, I said, and worked well, and that has made all the difference for us. There was some luck too. What if we had just left to go somewhere? It was not a good thought.

That evening over dinner we shared our story with Melody. It occurred to me that in newer homes all the smoke detectors are wired together so that if one sounds, they all sound, thus creating a general house-alarm going off. Good for waking everybody up. Not so good for finding the source of the alarm.

“I’m sure that would have screwed us up if our house was wired that way,” I said. There would have been the loud beeping coming from all corners and I don’t know how soon we would have made our way down to the problem bedroom. Especially because our first instinct had been to treat it as another false alarm. We’ve all been there many times after some tiny incident of dinner candles causes obnoxious beeping to erupt and then just go on and on. Sometimes even dust in the air does it. At those times the smoke detectors are not our friends. I suggest to all of you that you treat every alarm with diligence and quickly perform a room by room search to inspect all possible sources of a cause. You never know when a sweatshirt on the floor of a bedroom is going to be spewing flames.

The McKees used the incident as an incentive to review the family policy for house fires. “If it’s smallish and approachable we begin to fight the fire ourselves,” I said. If it’s so large that moving through the house is a danger then we all exit out a window if need be and meet in front of the house. That’s so we can see who got out safely. No exceptions, even if you are scantily clad. Neighbors will somehow get over seeing you in your undies.

Wesley looked for the family fire extinguisher. It took a full half minute for us to find it under the kitchen sink. Well, we confirmed where it was, which was valuable. I studied how to activate it. Pull this pin and then squeeze here, we agreed. I hear little ones like this empty out fast, so use it wisely.

Then Wesley asked about how things had gone during my parents’ fire, the big one that gutted their large one-story house in Alamo twenty years ago. I explained how the smoke detector had been disabled because its battery had gotten low causing it to chirp and my dad simply took out the battery without putting in a new one. Some weeks later an electrical wire shorted out at a small under-sink water heater in the kitchen. It was the sounds of jars exploding from heat in the pantry that awakened them at three in the morning. There was panic and finding their way outside through blinding and choking smoke. Phone lines were dead. By then the fire was so large that my Dad’s attempts to fight it with a backyard hose resulted in the water turning to steam before it reached the fire.

The house’s position on one of Alamo’s ridge lines resulted in people seeing it from miles away and calling it in. Then came the excruciatingly long wait while fire trucks, heavily laden with tons of water, lumbered up the long and steep winding road. It didn’t help that a sheriff’s deputy arrived minutes ahead of the fire trucks and chose to park her car in the long driveway before walking away in order to look things over (or who knows what) and precious minutes were lost while fire fighters tried to find this idiot to get her to move her car. The end result was that the house was gutted. My parents and sister escaped, as did all the cats and two out of three family dogs. I received a call from my sister an hour later as they all sat shell-shocked wearing underwear and blankets at a neighbor’s house. (Those four a.m. phone calls are rarely good news.) We built a new home on that site a year later.

Maybe this is why I was so happy last week when I got to experience my dumb smoke detector doing its job so well and, you know, saving our house and lives from ruin. Sound your alarm all you want, oh noble smoke detector.

Remember to change smoke detector batteries during Daylight Savings weekend. Or now.




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