Where I live in Oakland is considered a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone. This explains the goats I’ve seen grazing on nearby hills as well as the sprinklers I have in every room of my apartment.
However, I didn’t know any of this until this week.
For the first several days that I lived here, it got pretty cold at night. So cold I had to turn on the space heater and wrap myself up in a blanket when I watched TV. Then early this week the weather got warmer, and Tuesday night the apartment felt particularly toasty when I came home late from conditioning class.
However, thinking nothing of this, I jumped into the shower.
Then the smoke alarm went off.
When I say “went off,” I mean “screeched incredibly loudly,” as smoke alarms do. Not only that, the other alarms in the apartment went off as well.
At first I thought maybe it was the steam from the shower and tried to wave it away. The alarm stopped after a few seconds, and I thought that was it.
But then it went off again, and again. And again.
My friend who owns the place had told me story of a tenant who made her come to the apartment because the smoke alarms were going off. At the time I thought, What an idiot. Now I was the idiot calling my friend and sending her panicked texts.
The alarms seemed to be going off randomly. I wasn’t cooking, and I didn’t think the steam from my shower could have that much of an affect. I took the battery out of one of them, but then it made that annoying chirping noise. Also I couldn’t get the cover back on properly.
The alarm in the living room was a bigger problem. I have 18-foot tall ceilings, which is lovely, except that there’s no way I can reach the alarm. I started to panic. Would these alarms be going off randomly all night? Why wasn’t my friend answering her phone? What could I do?
I ended up knocking on a neighbor’s door. While she couldn’t really help me, she did have one good suggestion: call the fire department for advice.
So I did. First making sure they knew it wasn’t an emergency, I explained the situation, and told them how desperate I was for help.
The woman said, “We don’t normally send people out for that kind of thing, but you sound nice, so I’ll ask.”
A couple of minutes later, she came back and said that someone could go out there since it wasn’t too busy.
I was relieved at first, but then thought, If the alarms are malfunctioning, they won’t be able to fix them anyway. So I, get this, made a reservation at a hotel in the city. It was pricey but I didn’t care. That was how desperate and panicked I was. Then I called the fire department and told them to cancel sending guys out here.
I got dressed and started to get my stuff together, but I was still upset. I didn’t want to go to a hotel. I wanted to stay home. As I was trying to focus on packing a few things, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find three burly firemen.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy and embarrassed at the same time.
They asked me a bunch of questions. Was I cooking? Had I turned on the heat? The A/C? Had I taken a hot shower?
The shower! The steam, combined with the warmer than usual temperatures, was indeed the culprit. Because this is a high risk area, they explained, the smoke alarms are super-sensitive and hard-wired together. That means, when one goes off, they all go off, which is how they knew they weren’t malfunctioning.
One of the guys fixed the alarm cover that I couldn’t get back on, and they opened up the porch door and told me to turn on fans and open the windows. I kept apologizing and thanking them.
“Don’t worry,” one of them said. “We’ve seen this before.”
The alarms didn’t go off again that night, and now I’m extremely careful about opening windows and turning on fans whenever I shower or cook.
The firemen were so nice, if I baked, I would bake them something and bring it over. But then I might set of the smoke alarms again.
My friend did get back to me soon after the firemen left and confirmed what they said, and I was even able to cancel my hotel reservation with no penalty, all of which tells me panicking has no negative consequences and I should totally do it again.
[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Jim Linwood]