Our smoke detectors at work


November 24, 2022

I don’t know why I was so distracted that day.

I’ve gotten into this bad habit of popping up the toaster to check the toast. I did it again that day, and pushed it back down before wandering off into another room, puttering, my mind on a million things.

When I headed back toward the kitchen, I found smoke roiling on the ceiling in my hallway. It was only then that I remembered my toast.

It was even smokier in the kitchen. I turned off the toaster and pulled the plug, so very thankful I didn’t find something worse.

I tried the smoke alarm in the hallway. It was close to the kitchen and had always been sensitive. Annoying really, always going off for minor reasons.

It beeped when I tested it, so I knew the battery was good. It should have been, I changed it a couple months earlier.

Why hadn’t it gone off?

I confess I didn’t sleep much that night. Truth is, I wasn’t going to relax until I had replaced all the smoke alarms in my home. It happened late in the day and the hardware store was closed. I tried the grocery store, Dollar General, and the store on the highway that will forever be Phil’s in my mind. Nobody carried them.

I just kept thinking about all that smoke. But mostly I thought about the silence. What if it happened at night, while I was sleeping?

It was a chilling lesson, and that’s why I’m writing this now.

I always thought it was enough to change the batteries in the smoke alarms, but I realize now that was naive. Like anything else, smoke alarms stop working after a while and need to be replaced.

I contacted MD Johnson, a volunteer for the District 4 Fire Department, to talk about smoke alarms.

“Smoke alarms do work,” Johnson said. “Here’s why they don’t work: You don’t have them. The batteries are dead. Or someone has a 1,500 square foot home, and they put one smoke alarm in it.”

He suggested visiting the National Fire Protection Association’s website, which has a lot of information, as well as Consumer Reports or Underwriters Laboratories, recognized testing laboratories, to research and purchase smoke alarms with brand names that have been given good reviews.

“I would hope most intelligent people would do a little research and get a brand name,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to spend a million dollars, but this can save your life.”

Smoke alarms should be installed in every bedroom, outside the bedrooms, and on every level of the house, including the basement if applicable. Larger homes may need more.

“With today's technology, if you have a big house, maybe you have more alarms, and if you have the pocketbook, the whole system can be interconnected,” Johnson said.

One should also be placed at least 10 feet from a smoking appliance.

The NFPA website recommends mounting them high on walls, not more than 12 inches from the ceiling, or on ceilings.

“Remember, smoke rises,” the website advises.

Boy, does it. I can still see it heave to and fro, like surf on my ceiling.

Again, have enough of them, have a good brand, and check your batteries.

“These are Duracells, we get the best batteries we can,” Johnson told me, showing me the smoke alarm he uses at home. “It doesn’t make sense to have a name brand, reliable smoke alarm and then throw lousy batteries in it that may or may not last.”

Change batteries once a year. Like most of us, Johnson was told to change them when he changed the clocks, but he says the standard advice is now to do it once a year with a good battery, on a date you will remember. Twice a year won’t hurt, but you might be throwing out good batteries.

Just be sure to test them once a month!

And here was the really important piece of advice, the bit I did not know: Smoke alarms should be replaced every 10 years based on the date of manufacture on the back label, or if an alarm sounds an end of life signal, it fails a monthly operability test, or after a fire event, according to the NFPA website.

Be safe out there.


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