How my daughter-to-be protected me from a fire: a true story about smoke detectors.

November 6, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

I needed to change the battery in one of our smoke detector tonight.  This reminded me of an incident that occurred in 2001.  It’s an illustration of the value of smoke detectors.  The story also has a nice twist at the end.  Afer the incident, I wrote the following email to friends and family. 

I’m writing today because I’m alive and able to do so because of an incredibly important and inexpensive gadget: a smoke detector.

Yesterday morning, at about 5:45 am, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the Battery-powered smoke detector located in the 2nd floor hallway, outside of the bedroom.  It was only after being awakened that I smelled the smoke.   I blasted out of bed and scrambled to find a fire in the upstairs hallway bathroom we are renovating.  The bathroom is only 10 feet down the hall. I was home alone (JuJu and Anne have been out of town while the bathroom is being renovated).

I grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed the fire (the fire was the size of a roaring campfire when I hit it the first time.  The flames were the only thing I could see in the bathroom—all else was thick black smoke.  I ran downstairs to call 911, then grabbed a second extinguisher, which turned the fire into a small glowing area.  The fire department showed up a five minutes later and helped figure out (through lots of smoke) that an old permanently-installed bathroom space heater was the problem. 

That heater, originally installed in the bathroom wall in 1920, was due to be removed this week as a part of the renovating we are doing.  It was turned OFF during the renovations.  The removal of plaster, however, loosened up the heater.  It must have just fallen forward to a facedown position in the middle of the night, for no apparent reason.  It didn’t occur to the carpenter or me to find the breaker or remove the heater.  We were going to let the electrician do that this week, along with a lot of other electrical work.  Unfortunately, the heater switch was a mercury switch, so the “innocent” possibility that the heater might fall off the wall in the “off” position was actually quite dangerous.  The switch stayed in the OFF position, but the blob of mercury (inside the switch) rolled onto the contacts and heated up its massive coils.   That ended up igniting the fire.

I’m writing because, yes, I’m so very happy that the house suffered only minor fire damage, including minor smoke damage.  More important, this seemed like a good opportunity to remind everyone how important, cheap and simple it is to change the batteries in your smoke detectors.  That $7 gadget probably saved my life yesterday.  Also, having a few $10 fire extinguishers around allowed me to hit the fire hard and early, sparing the house significant damage, including smoke damage.  It was a good feeling to be able to do something about the problem, instead of simply waiting for the fire fighters to arrive. Those extinguishers also allowed me to put out the fire safely, in that I couldn’t originally tell (through the smoke) that a high voltage electrical heater was the source of the problem.  It could have been dangerous to try to put out the fire with water.

So please take this as a reminder to change the batteries in your smoke detectors and to have a few extinguishers around the house, mounted and ready to go (I’ve already bought replacement extinguishers).  It might really save your life and property.

After a bit more time, I thought of this twist to the incident.  I wrote this in a follow-up letter to some friends:

Less than a year ago, Michelle (our social worker) visited to do our home study for adopting the baby girl we will call “Charlotte.”  Michelle followed her checklist carefully.  When she said “Now I need you to check your smoke detector” I pushed the test button, and it didn’t work.  The battery was dead.  We have a monitored system too, but THAT alarm is downstairs, not as loud for me as the little battery powered alarm (the one that lacked a battery) on the second floor.  

I bought that replacement battery because Michelle was doing that home inspection to allow us to bring Charlotte (our daughter-to-be) home from China.  Thus, our future daughter might have saved my life all the way from China, even though we haven’t yet seen a photo of her and we don’t yet know anything about her.

Misc notes: After I used up the first fire extinguisher (it only sprays for 10 seconds), I learned to take a deep breath BEFORE going back into the burning room to fight the fire.  The extinguisher dust is more irritating to breathe than the smoke, and both of them are ghastly. On the other hand, I learned how dangerous it is to fight a fire on your own. The main danger is not getting burned, it’s carbon monoxide.  In the environment of a burning house the existence of lots of carbon monoxide can cause you to suddenly lose consciousness. Thousands of people die from fire every year in this country–someone dies because of fire in the U.S. every 162 minutes. Most residential fire deaths occur because of inhalation of toxic gas, rather than contact with the flames. 

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Ben says:

    I assume you have a carbon monoxide detector.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Yes. Actually, we have two CO detectors.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    I was awakened one morning a couple of years ago by a smoke detector. By the time I found the source of smoke in the basement and sprayed it with the fire extinguisher, it was just a smoking, bubbling mass of blackened plastic with an electrical cord.

    A small, portable fan we were using for air circulation in the basement apparently had problems.

    Fortunately, it was sitting on concrete at least a foot from the wooden wall.

    It was the kitchen smoke detector that went off. I should put one (back) up in the basement in case the next event isn't so luckily located in a non-flammable area. The smoking plastic didn't set off our basement monoxide/gas detector.

  4. Artemis says:

    Its amazing how seemingly "innocent" activities can lead to a fire in a matter of moments. My "fire story": I was preparing for a Native American ceremony called Hamblecha (Vision Quest). The ceremony called for the creation of hundreds of prayer ties, which needed to be smudged with smoke from burning sage. I was sitting in one of the bedrooms of my apartment, outside of which was a smoke detector. I burned a lot of sage during this process, which of course produced the desired smoke. Since this caused the smoke detector to go off, I closed the bedroom door. When I had filled the abolone shell with charred sage, I took the ashes into the kitchen and dumped them into the trash! I ignored the smoke detector as it went off yet again but..you guessed it… I had started a kitchen fire with those still hot, smouldering ashes! Duh. FORTUNATELY I HAD A FIRE EXTINGUISHER. And yes, Erich, the fumes from those devices are ghastly, and they leave a powdery white substance all over the walls and in the duct work; it takes weeks to fully clean up the residue. Did I care? Hell no. My kitchen suffered minor damage, and there's nothing like the heart-stopping excitement of seeing leaping flames coming out of your kitchen trash can. A fire extinguisher was the ONLY thing that could've handled that blaze. I don't recall if I called the fire department that night; I do remember my landlord was incredibly understanding and did not charge me for the damage. After reading your post and the comment from Ben, I am now resolved to obtain a CO2 detector… so I'll have a working smoke detector, fire extinguisher, AND a CO2 dectector. I still burn sage, as well as candles and incense, but I can assure you I am not eager to give myself a repeat of the thrilling experience that one gets from battling a fire.

  5. Erika Price says:

    I definitely have to confess to a misled sense of immortality toward such a disaster. I think most people have the ill-conceived notion that fires only befall the absent-minded who leave fireplaces burning or forget to shut off the stove. Thanks for reminding me that fire can strike even when you take proper precautions!

    A few days ago I found a fire extinquisher left unannounced by my landlord under the sink. I'll have to make sure to alert my roomates that it exists!

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I caught an interesting report on the TV this morning comparing the different types of smoke detectors. There are basically 3 types: ionizing, photoelectric and hybrid. the ionizing type are the most common, cheapest, and the least reliable. in the comparison, it took several minutes for an ionizing detector to sound with a slow smoldering smokey fire while the photoelectric sensor sounded within seconds. the hybrid detected triggered a little after the photelectric and long before the ionizing detector.

    Ionizing detectors use a tiny dot of radioactive polonium to statically charge smoke particles. The ionized particles are attracted to a charge sensor that triggers the alarm when the static charge exceeds a threshold level. The ionozing effect of the polonium weakens over time and the detectors become less sensitive. so the detector should be replace after 5 or 6 years with a new one.

    photoelectric detectors watch for rapid changes in the optical quality of the air, and the hybrid combines both ionizing and photoelectric sensors.

  7. Tim Hogan says:

    Hey, howzat for good kharma?

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