By the time I sat up, Paul was flying into Kate’s room.  He was shouting, but I couldn’t hear.  It was all too loud.  What was he saying?  Something about smoke.  And… fire.  A placid voice was booming that word between the whoops and beeps and wails of the endless alarm.  FIRE FIRE. GET OUT.

I walked out to the doorway just as Will reached his, groggy and looking panicked.  Kate was sitting up in her bed, trying to decide whether to cry in fear or indignation from the rude awakening.  I took both kids back to our bed, showing them with my own hands how they could cover their ears to keep out the sound.  Will looked conflicted.

“Mommy,” he hesitated, “shouldn’t we leave?” His shout comes out as a wail.

“Do you see any smoke, Will?”

“No…. but…”

“We’re probably okay.  Daddy is checking the house.  Let’s stay warm and wait for him, okay?”

Or maybe I just grunted and pointed, I don’t remember.   We shuffle into the bed, where thankfully the cat has had the good sense not to move.  We lift him with the covers and slide under his warm spot.  Kate has both hands over her ears.

In case you haven’t experienced the assault of a full-house fire alarm, let me describe it.  By code they are wired to all go off anytime one senses danger.  Each alarm has a different tone, each delivered at a deafening level.  When combined, it’s oddly melodic, with occasional commentary (FIRE FIRE GET OUT) from a humorless voice.   The sound is instantly overwhelming.  It’s repulsive enough that after a minute, you start to feel sick.  Will has a point; we should leave.  Who cares if the house is on fire or not?

Paul has finished his flying around the house, turned on all lights, and emerges in the doorway with a wild look in his eye.  “THERE’S NO SMOKE.”  He’s shouting at the top of his lungs.  “BUT I CAN’T TELL WHICH OF THEM CAUSED THE ALARM.”  His update comes at us in a rush and he’s off again retrieving a ladder.

Our shotgun house is 23 feet wide, and with the exception of the front room, holds rooms that, at the absolute widest, are 12 feet.  Add in cabinets or furniture, and getting an 8′ foot ladder through the room, set up, used, and then out again is not particularly easy.

Especially at 1:30 in the morning.  On one of the coldest nights on record in the city.

Luckily, our outbuilding is (still) under construction and the back room (still) holds all Paul’s tools.  Yes, technically it means that the kids could potentially decide to play around with a hacksaw, but (upside!) it also means that Paul does not have to go outside to retrieve a ladder.  Score one for slow-moving DIY home renovation.

It takes him just over 20 minutes to disable all of the alarms.  Disable = remove.

Thank goodness that this happened while Paul was home.

Finally, there is sweet, blessed silence.  The drama hasn’t ended, but at least it’s quiet.  You can hear echoes of the sound leave our skin as we start to breathe a little easier.

Paul announces that he’s found the culprit: it was the detector in Kate’s room.

I push out the memory of Jenny, a teaching colleague at Michigan, who lost her entire primary source document collection, the result of more of a year’s dissertation research in Ghana, to a fire that smoldered quietly in the exterior wall of her apartment for more than 24 hours before bursting into flame through her wall.  Surely, I say to myself, Kate’s room is fine.


I’m probably willing to say it’s fine, just to go back to sleep (big day! tomorrow! must leave house at 7am!)  But I’m married to a responsible sort of guy and he’s not keeping his family in an unsafe house, by golly!   He increases the intensity of the inspection.  He re-checks all rooms.  He conducts a flashlight search in the attic.  He even braves the bitter cold to look around outside.  (In retrospect, this is actually sort of hot, no?)

Meanwhile, he’s clearly irritated that he cannot identify a reason to cause the alarm.  (Scotland Yard would be no help at all, Watson!  We must uncover the true source of the misery!)  The three of us, Will, Kate, and I, lay in bed listening to the bumping, ruffling, shifting sounds of Paul’s thorough inspections.  Ever the helpful boy, Will offers his best hypotheses.

“Mommy, you know, the Addisonhunters are a group of very very very old ninjas who hunt down fires in the deep woods of Chinese….”  (Hey, at least Will offers comic relief.)  I do my best to calm the kids, who are still wide-eyed and dazed.

Finally, Paul is convinced that there is no immediately identifiable danger.

“Okay,” he says, holding on to a smoke detector, “I’ll start putting them back now.”

“WHAT?” (I’m thinking he’s out of his mind.)

Paul looks incredulous.  “You don’t want to sleep in a house with no smoke detectors, do you?”  Oh, right.  Probably not a good idea, especially tonight.  Thank goodness one of us considers these things.

After a half hour of taking down the offending alarms and 20 minutes of searching for signs of smoke, Paul starts the weaving-the-ladder-through-the house game.  We listen to his progress as his selects a few rooms to re-equip.  Fifteen minutes later…


Yes.  It starts again.

The fifth of the five alarms he’s re-installed triggers a repeat performance.  Oddly enough, we discover five alarms to be surprisingly equal in sound level to the previous 11 (12 if you count the carbon monoxide detector).

Kate sighs heavily and turns to once again, cover her ears.  “Mommy,” she shouts, exasperated, “is our house on fire AGAIN?”

* Update.   Neither Paul nor I slept a bit for the rest of the night, and no one slept in Kate’s room.   Paul replaced the offending alarms (which he discovered had a high false-positive rate) with better-rated units and replaced all batteries.