Lauren Younger was home alone when the piercing sound of a smoke detector jolted her awake in the middle of the night. In a panic, she made the mistake most homeowners make when a fire or smoke alarm sounds. Here, she describes the night and how her instincts could have turned this disaster into a tragedy.
It happened in August 2016. My husband had just started a new job and was away on business. I was at home alone with Otis, our big old yellow Lab.
It was the usual stay-in evening for me. I warmed up something in the oven for dinner and called my husband. We talked while I ate. After the call, Otis and I headed upstairs to bed and I fired up my laptop to watch TV — something I do when he's out of town because I have trouble falling asleep. I think I drifted off around 10 p.m.
I was sound asleep when an earsplitting siren jolted me awake.
I was sound asleep when an earsplitting siren jolted me awake around 4 a.m. It scared the bejesus out of me. Our house has three levels — bedrooms on the top floor, kitchen and dining on second floor, den on the ground level — and the sound of the alarm was disorienting. At first, I didn't know if it was a smoke alarm or security alarm. And Otis was really freaking out. As I raced downstairs, it didn't take long to figure out it was the smoke alarm. Smoke was billowing out of the kitchen, but I couldn't see flames anywhere.
Our battery-powered smoke alarm is installed in a hallway near the stairs that lead to the ground floor. So I did what anybody would do when you're cooking and the smoke alarm goes off: I grabbed a kitchen towel and I started fanning the acrid, white smoke around the smoke detector. It didn't make a dent. That's when I thought, "What am I doing?"
The 911 operator said: Get out of the house – immediately.
I ran back upstairs to grab my cell phone to call 911. (If I'd seen flames, I would've run outside to call 911 from my neighbor's.) The operator said: Get out of the house — immediately. I grabbed Otis' leash and a sweatshirt, and we bolted.
Four fire trucks with sirens blasting showed up within minutes. All our home alarms are linked to our cell phones, so I called my husband to tell him what was happening. Despite all of the noise and flashing lights, only one of our neighbors woke up — and she took in my barking dog, which was a relief.
When I saw the firefighters break out the axes, I was afraid they were going to tear apart our new house. Fortunately, that didn't happen — in fact, they didn't even find a fire. They couldn't find any flames either, which shocked me.
The minute or two I wasted looking for things could have been fatal.
The firefighters had a heat sensor, which led them to the microwave installed above our oven. They removed it and put it outside on the lawn, and asked me if I'd used it. I said no, but that I'd used our new oven earlier to heat up dinner.
As the firefighters left, the source of the smoke was still a mystery. I was thinking, "Smoke with no flames? Is this really over yet?" The remaining fireman stayed behind for an hour to watch for hot spots smoldering inside a wall, but nothing flared up.
I opened the windows to air out the house, which had a strong, horrible smell, like burned rubber. Thankfully, since it was white smoke, there was no smoke damage. After a few days the house smelled normal.
We consider ourselves very lucky. When my husband returned a few days later, we finally identified the source of the smoke: our stove. While he was cooking, huge sparks shot out of the cooktop. Turns out, our new stove had been installed improperly — the wires were crossed, which burned up insulation on the wires.
Here's what I know now: Sure, I learned the value of a smoke alarm. But what this experience really changed is the way I think about our emergency plan. I realized in an evacuation, we'd spend way too much time trying to find things in our three-level home. The minute or two I wasted could have been fatal. Now, everything we need — emergency supplies, a leash, a first aid kit, shoes — is always by the front door. Just in case.
And here's the most important take-away I always tell people: Coming out of a dead sleep to the sound of alarms, it's so hard to think rationally and fight the impulse to fix things. Now I know job number one is just to get all of us out of the house. Everything else can wait.
In less than five minutes, fire can engulf a room and develop fatal, toxic smoke and fumes due to fast-burning synthetic materials, lightweight construction and the open floor plans in modern homes. The rate of flashover — when a majority of surfaces in a room are heated to the point of combustion and emit flammable, toxic gases — is eight times faster in modern homes, compared with homes built in the 1950s and 1970s. —New Science Fire Safety Journal
White smoke often indicates a fire in its first stage, when increasing heat levels cause burning material to release moisture. —FireRescue magazine
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