Where There’s Smoke


Neighborhood triathlon I volunteered at this weekend: 1 (so fun!)

Number of smoke detectors in our home: 6

9-volt batteries we usually have on-hand: 0

The people who install smoke detectors have a twisted sense of humor.

1:30 a.m. A shrill beep pierces the silence of our home.

1:31 a.m. I feel my husband lying awake but motionless beside me. We have an unspoken resolve that if we don’t make it mad, the smoke detector will leave us alone.

1:45 a.m. We are still awake. Our hearts are beating faster as if the smoke detector is not only a warning that the battery is low but a threat of imminent disaster.

1:52 a.m. Nothing. There are no more piercing beeps.

1:54 a.m. “Which one do you think it is?” I ask, eyeing the hallway.

“How should I know?”

Neither one of us wants to bring up the obvious: the next step is standing on a chair underneath each one of the detectors wearing not very many clothes, trying to detect which one is making the offensive sound. Only homeowners with dog-sensitive ears can distinguish the near hallway detector from the master bedroom or the master bedroom from the guest bedroom detector.

1:57 a.m. “Is it safe to go back to sleep?” I whisper. I wonder if I can turn over without the detector sensing my movement (because it has paranormal powers) and setting off the ear-piercing alarm that could probably alert our fire department three miles away without a 9-1-1 call.

My husband grumbles and rolls over. “It can tell when you’ve gone back to sleep. It knows.”

Back when I was nine years old, the house burning down was my worst nightmare. Firemen came out to the school and gave us lectures about all the ways we could prevent a horrible, fiery death.

I carried the propaganda home to my parents and sat at the kitchen table with them, Family Meeting Style. Only… we didn’t have Family Meetings. I think my parents were allergic.

“So. We need to buy a rope ladder for my bedroom and maybe one for yours, too,” I said, whipping out a stick figure diagram of a person escaping a burning building by handily scooting down a ladder.

“Mmmm-hmmm. No. I’m not buying a rope ladder,” my mom said, as she got up and started chopping vegetables for dinner.

My dad sipped some ice water and looked out the kitchen window.

Clearly, my parents had not figured out how destructive, even deathly, a force that fire could be. They had only survived to this point in life by luck and a double-check system for making sure the iron, stove and curling iron were turned off… as if that were enough.

“I think we should put a rope ladder on our list to buy. Also: we need a First Aid bag, packed and ready to go. I can keep that in my room.” I flipped the brochure over and made some official-looking check marks.

“How about this,” my mom said. “If there’s a fire, just make some knots with the sheets and fling them out your window.”

I looked at her in horror. “Have you seen my window? Have you seen the hill that topples right down into the creek?” I imagined how I would have to rescue my sister and evacuate her out my window, using my own body on the ground as a sort of pillow to soften her fall.

I looked at my skinny bones. I wasn’t going to make much of a pillow.

In the present day, we have six smoke detectors in our house, the majority of them upstairs. What the Installers of Smoke Detectors think goes on in our bedrooms is clearly quite colorful.

We slept that particular night. The errant beep was forgotten, and we went about our daily lives without fear.

But the next evening, we were sending the kids upstairs to brush their teeth.

Beeeeep. Beeeep.

We turned to each other, the memory of the previous night coming back in a flash.

And we scrambled into the kitchen to check the supply of 9-volt batteries.

One left.

We kissed it, and my husband trudged upstairs to begin the discovery process. Chair. Battery. Beep. New position.


24 thoughts on “Where There’s Smoke

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Oh, yes, my husband and I know that experience well. And why do the batteries always seem to run low in the middle of the night? Your husband is right. They know…

  2. Bernie Brown says:

    I loved the blog. Beep. Beep. Tonight we are in a motel. I REALLY hope they smoke alarm doesn’t go off.

    • annewoodman says:

      Bernie, I bet you’ve been in many hotels where you got a late-night wake-up call, as much as you’ve traveled!

      I remember the big thing in college was being woken up at 3 a.m. and seeing all of my fellow students standing on the lawn in their pajamas.

  3. desertrose7 says:

    Love it! I must admit there have been times I have gotten quite violent towards smoke detectors.

  4. Daryl says:

    And this is why we have a pack of eight 9V’s in the drawer 😉

  5. David Gentry says:


    You did not tell about the experience when you were an asleep 3 or 4 year old and the hall smoke detector right outside your room went off due to the house full of smoke from a lighted Duralog that I had poked in the fireplace even though the instructions said “Do not poke” and we had to open all of the windows and the temperature was 20 degrees — AND YOU SLEPT THROUGH THE WHOLE THING!


    • annewoodman says:

      It is a special skill I unfortunately lost upon becoming a mom. Now I hear every little sound… especially the beeps and loud sirens and freezing cold air.

  6. There is nothing more irritating than a smoke detector with a low battery. I recently had a sensor go out in one of ours. It turns out that the detector was hard wired into the home power supply. So, I went to the store and bought what I thought was the proper replacement. Same brand and model. Unfortunately, the company had changed the electrical connectors on the ‘newer version. I ended up having to rewire the entire unit.

    • annewoodman says:

      The wonderful part of your comment, Dennis, is the part where you said you rewired the entire unit. People like you and my husband can do stuff like that. Me? When he’s out of town, if beeping and newer versions happened, we would be living in Beep Central. No rewiring happens in my little world. ; )

  7. jmmcdowell says:

    There is obviously some sort of cosmic conspiracy with smoke detectors! You are so right—they never beep their warnings in the light of day. No, they must wait until we’ve fallen asleep and then disguise the chirps so we can’t figure out which is the culprit.

    I’ll never forget the one at my mother-in-law’s house, though. My husband checked every single alarm but couldn’t find the guilty party. Later, he was standing by a kitchen cupboard when he heard the chirp next to him. It turns out his mother had put a spare one in the cupboard and had left the now-failing battery in it!

    Don’t forget—when one goes, others will soon follow. At night. Always at night. 😉

    • annewoodman says:

      Oh, my gosh, JM! A spare one that drove you to distraction? I would have taken a hammer to it! Many times.

      I will try not to think about more smoke detector wake-up calls. There are enough other things waking me up in the middle of the night!

  8. Kate is says:

    Always at night. Why is that? It’s some kind of engineering thing they put into it.
    Having no man to stand on the chair, I get the wee beastie to do it – he’s almost a man, right?

    • annewoodman says:

      Almost a man is even better–you’re training him up for some lucky woman out there. ; ) She will end up marrying a guy who knows exactly how to change batteries in the middle of the night while standing on a chair.

  9. Anne, I love your posts – and I also love reading your dad’s comments! So sweet! This post makes me think that I don’t have a smoke detector in my house…it also makes me remember the fire drill at university, which was always in the middle of the night, and how funny it was to see people that say, you thought you fancied, coming out in in really unflattering nightwear, which somehow enabled you to realise that you were made to even think them remotely attractive.

    • annewoodman says:

      I absolutely remember the fire drills at university! It was always interesting to see who was creeping out with whom, if you know what I mean. ; ) Thank you for stopping by, Gabriela!

  10. Holy crap! This just happened at my house the other day – it’s like you were THERE! That’s almost as creepy as them knowing we are asleep, which is the only rational explanation for why they only beep at night. Also, I think those firemen who go to schools have a perverse sense of humor and probably laugh about how they scared the crap out of a bunch of kids when they go out for beers later that night…

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes, those firemen definitely put the fear of God into some kids!

      Sadly, I think we all have smoke detector experiences to report. There must be a better way!

      Thanks for stopping by, Hungry. ; )

  11. Sharon Kurtzman says:

    Great post, Anne! Have been there, too, and also wonder why the little suckers tend to go off in the middle of the night. I remember the fire safety talks they used to give at school and I think my mother had the same reaction to the idea of buying rope ladders. Thanks for sharing this, it was fun to read!

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