This is controversial: Maybe it’s time to rethink smoke detectors. Let me explain.
On a rainy evening after a long week not long ago, I had just settled down with a carb-heavy dinner and a soothing British period drama when an ominous chirrup shattered the quiet, and along with it any hope of a cozy tranquil night. OH NO! The pitiless call of a needy smoke alarm awoke a stabbing dread in my heart.
Thoughts of fire or suffocating from an unseen noxious gas never entered my mind. No, a far more terrifying fate was in store. My fears were confirmed moments later by another round of staccato chirps and then, even worse, a mocking silence. I sat in a hypervigilant state, heart pounding, pupils dilated, and nerves on edge, frozen in anticipation of the next aural assault, my sense of time kaleidoscoped by the waiting… the waiting… the waiting…
The moments ticked by, just long enough to con my nervous system into lowering its guard. Just as my pulse normalized and my focus returned to the rugged Yorkshire countryside and my warm, cheesy supper, BAM! As inexorable as death and taxes, three more laryngitic bleeps shrieked into the dark with sadistic glee and quieted before I could begin to suss out their point of origin. The source was almost certainly not where it belonged on the ceiling of a hall or bedroom inside the warm, dry house, where I could deal with it in good lighting. Oh no, this hazing ritual would have no such easy fix. How could I be so sure, you ask? Easy: our smoke detectors had long since been hastily dislocated from their proper locations, in incidents involving things like bacon or the fireplace flue.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comfortable going commando vis a vis smoke detectors. Sparky the Fire Dog is embedded in my earliest neural pathways, so I’m fully aware it’s only a matter of time before we’re engulfed in flames. But life is to be lived, at least until the inferno, and this old world is stressful enough without earsplitting false alarms at breakfast time. Of course we had ripped the smoke detectors from the ceiling at some point, tossing them onto the porch, where the fresh air would make them Shut Up Already. Do I feel good about it? No. Has life been more peaceful since? It absolutely has.
A jilted smoke detector harbors a stunning level of narcissistic cruelty, expressed in a charming safety mechanism, used to demand attention when its battery is dying or it’s otherwise not in good working order. The system is, whenever a unit randomly decides it’s lonely, it emits a triplet of shrill, unignorable BLIPS, like an attention-seeking toddler chanting “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. MomMomMom. Mom.” Only unlike a toddler, after those three cute but ear-splitting blips, it waits with malicious delight as you stare dumbly at the shards of your peace of mind scattered at your feet. Each chirp is just a fraction of a second long. The ear has no hope of identifying a location. The silent lull that follows is fiendishly timed to last just a few moments more than a human attention span. It’s kind of like playing a really slow game of Hot and Cold, but the only clue is “cold.” Ironically. It’s a system designed for torment.
So it’s a cold and rainy night, dark as a coal mine, and that alarm is getting its revenge. Frantically problem-solving, I get the brilliant idea to time the silent interval, so my echolocation powers can be at the ready for the next set of chirps. This strategy is successful as far as it goes, but it really just confirms that the device is indeed somewhere in the depths of the dark porch. When I try to home in on it, the sound just bounces around, sending me on a series of wild goose chases into damp and cobwebby corners.
“Chirp! Chirp! Chirp!” Move to the other side of the porch. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Shiver. Cold droplets on my neck. Stare at the stopwatch. Wait. Ok… almost time… get ready… Ears on alert. NOW! “Chirp! Chirp! Chirp!” Dammit, it doesn’t sound any closer! Where is it coming from? It’s everywhere! Maybe in this damp cardboard box? Nope, just ancient weatherstripping and a socket wrench in there. Ugh. Ok, three steps in this direction. Wait. Wait. Shiver…
It’s quickly clear that this operation is doomed until daybreak. I resign myself to an evening of torture and, with the benefit of sunlight the next morning, I’m able to find the alarm. Unearthed from the bottom of a pile of old ping pong paddles and someday yard sale items, the unmuffled sound is eardrum-piercing. It chirps on, merry. Intermittent. Ruthless. I can’t just put it out in the trash barrel; it wouldn’t be fair to the neighbors, and is probably not environmentally responsible, so I google desperately for a customer service number. After I refuse to feed my contact info into yet another insidious database, the nice lady on the phone officially recommends that I “wrap it in a towel or something and maybe if you have a garage, put it out there until the battery dies.” FANTASTIC. (I don’t have a garage).
Could I take it to the fire department? Sparky the Fire Dog would definitely arrest me. Also, I’d have to either drive with that infernal noise in my car, or walk down the street carrying it in ignominy. I ruefully wrap the thing in a towel and leave it outside the back door, wishing it a swift and very painful death.
48 hours pass.
Suddenly the alarm SHRIEKS. LOUDER THAN EVER. PROLONGED SIREN-LIKE WAILS. It’s unconscionable, even wrapped in a towel and outdoors on the far side of the house. I fear Chestertonians showing up with pitchforks, so I google “Can you smash smoke detector with a hammer,” only to learn that even wanton violence might not stop the sound.
I try the 800 number again, and this time I get a much more self-assured weekday customer service professional. I’m a hollow husk of a person by now, so I cave and provide my phone number. I will receive spam calls until the end of time. I start to explain my dilemma, but Call Center Guy interrupts, telling me to slide the switch on the back of the device to “off,” as indicated on the back. Shockingly, I had tried that before I called the first time, because I can read and follow directions. CCG wants the model number, so I tiptoe outside to unwrap the alarm from the towel, which has been providing at least some degree of sound absorption. While I worry about my ears bleeding, CCG continues to ask questions. Finally, without his help, I discover that sliding the switch back into the ON position stops the shrieking. Naturally.
In the blessed quiet, CCG’s tone grows even more contemptuous. He says I need to vacuum the dust out of the device, insultingly (if accurately) insinuating that I haven’t kept up with my proper monthly maintenance. It dawns on me that he’s trying to tell me how to keep this infernal contraption alive even though it’s clearly no longer trustworthy, and also will possibly lead to murder, or suicide, or both. I explain that I absolutely do not want to restore the unit’s ability to chirp. He says, “if you want to disable the alarm [unspoken: you dumb broad], you have to slide the switch all the way under the tab, but then you won’t be able to use it, ever again” [unspoken: you deserve to die in a fire]. “Awesome,” says I, immediately sliding the tab. CCG continues talking at me. I say “Thank you” and hang up.
So I guess we’re currently in violation of the Maryland law requiring smoke alarms with sealed, 10-year batteries on every level of the home, and we have been for a while now (since the last Bacon Incident, probably). I suppose we’ll need to replace the one I disabled and can’t use ever again. But let’s be honest. We’ll surely end up right back on the same merry-go-round. A system to let people know when smoke detectors need attention is a good idea, and I truly appreciate the good intentions behind it. But now that we see how works in the real world, it could maybe use some adjustment. How about coming up with a system for people who occasionally burn their breakfasts and would sprain a wrist trying to vacuum a device attached to the ceiling?
Maria Wood traveled throughout the country as production and tour manager for award-winning musician David Grover, with whom she co-founded a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing education and fostering positive social change through music and music-making. She returned to school mid-career, earning a BA in American Studies and a Certificate in Ethnomusicology from Smith College. More recently, she has written and taught on the meaning and impact of the musical Hamilton, served as Deputy Campaign Manager for congressional candidate Jesse Colvin and was Executive Director of Chestertown RiverArts. She lives in a multigenerational human/feline household in Chestertown.