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The Problem With Mains Smoke Alarms: They Are Too Effective

Aug 4, 2008
Mains smoke alarms are now common in modern buildings. In fact, most American building codes now require mains smoke alarms as part of their safety policies. It's a triumph for personal fire safety--and occasionally, it's a headache.

I found out why early one morning when I was working on a lengthy writing assignment. It was around three: my roommates had long ago gone to bed and I was taking a break to brew some coffee and cook some eggs and bacon. (Yes, the life of a writer is actually like that.)

Our apartment is old, and our smoke detector is new. It's a good combination: aged wood floors and walls and a gas stove with exposed burners do not a happy home make. The detector picks up anything even the slightest bit irregular in terms of smoke and lets us all know in a loud, shrieking voice that we're in danger of fire. Since it's connected to the electrical mains, it can warn us in an extra-loud amplified voice, and it can do so presumably until the end of time, if the power company holds out.

So when the bacon I was cooking stuck to the pan and turned to ash, setting off the smoke alarm at 3 in the morning, this is precisely what I figured would happen. "Fire, fire!" screamed the digitized voice throughout the halls, with the burner long since turned off and the pan long since doused in water, all the fans on, trying frantically to dissipate the smoke and make the thing realize that the disaster was passed, that we were all safe, that it should please stop helping us now.

A mains alarm is very difficult to remove from the wall, as we all learned when my roommate woke up, angrily dragged a heavy trunk beneath the detector, and began to slowly claw it off of the wall. The voice abruptly stopped with an electric sparkle.

"I was cooking some bacon," I explained. He left the detector on the counter, scowled, and returned to bed.

Yes, this is an irresponsible and silly thing to do. But it's the kind of thing that we humans do all the time. And as well-meaning and probably as effective as the building code requirements are, they're yet another symptom of laws working in opposition to people and their actual behavior. You can take two stances on the issue: you can believe that people should have the freedom to let themselves burn to death if they please. Or you can believe that the laws are saving our lives, even when we hardly deserve to be saved.

I replaced our mains smoke alarms early the next morning. I know that sometime soon I'll be cooking at 3 in the morning and this will happen all over again. And I know that I'll let it. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The price of fire safety is occasional irritation.
About the Author
Mains smoke alarms come in various guises so check out detailed information at www.FireProtectionOnline.co.uk
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