Marolt: Carbon monoxide scares are serious business

Roger Marolt
Roger This

Listen to your mama. Listen to your conscience. And, if you plan on keeping these relevant, listen to the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in your house.

It sounds simple, except for the first two. Push a button on the detectors once in awhile to make sure they work. Replace the backup batteries at least once a year. Make sure the expiration date for the effectiveness of the devices hasn’t passed (they are generally good for seven to 10 years). And, for Pete’s sake, if the things start screeching, get the hell out of your house! Do not simply fan a magazine in front of the alarm to clear the air and make it stop fulfilling its purpose.

We had a close call last weekend. Relaxing around the dinner table after a delicious, albeit later than expected, Cajun shrimp and artichoke meal I’d whipped up, an alarm that we had never heard before sounded. We all reached for our phones to see if they were the source. Nope. It had to be something else.

In the modern barrage of alarm clocks, appointment reminders, kitchen timers, weather, sports scores and terror alerts on the tube, National Broadcast System tests, car alarms, and smoke detectors, to name a few, it’s not unusual to encounter a peep, buzz, ping or customized ringtone that you have no idea of its meaning. These audio intrusions are so ubiquitous that I am afraid soon we will need to keep a separate file on our computers to keep track of them like we currently do with all our PINs.

We figured out the sound was coming from a carbon monoxide detector in the living room. We probably had heard the sound before after we pressed the test button at the time it was installed, but that was years ago. So well-matched to the color of our paint and unobtrusively well-placed out of sight, I had forgotten we even had these things in the house. But there it was, screeching and blinking, as if there was a real emergency.

I handled the situation the way I figure many manly men might — I assumed it was a false alarm, probably due to a bad back-up battery. I unplugged the device, removed the battery and licked the positive and negative terminals on top to feel only a weak tingling sensation. Sure enough, a weak battery.

Of course, even though it was unplugged and without a battery, the thing continued to sound off, driving me nuts. I don’t know how they designed the things to work without an obvious power source attached. I couldn’t get it to stop so I took it out to the garage and set it on my workbench and headed back inside to think things through in peace and quiet. It was a routine I had gone through with the smoke detectors dozens of times before.

I need to admit that I am the ironic hypochondriac. I can peruse the Physicians’ Desk Reference and convince myself that I have an acute case of everything in it but, when an actual alarm sounds, signaling impending doom, I concoct all kinds of evidence in my mind proving to myself why there is nothing to worry about. I did this again in this instance, relying heavily on experience with smoke detectors, which had never accurately predicted a fire in our kitchen, not counting the small, contained ones in the oven that have been easily handled with a handful of baking soda thrown over meatloaf flambe, for example.

I was ready to dismiss this incident except my really, really intelligent wife told me that she would not be able to sleep well if we didn’t have the situation checked out. How ironically little she knew about sleeping deeply.

I called the emergency dispatcher and apologized for bothering her with this trifling matter that was probably nothing and threw my wife under the bus as the instigator of the overly cautious call. The dispatcher didn’t laugh, not even a chuckle. She told me to make sure I accounted for everyone in the house and get them all outside immediately.

To make a long story short, our local finest showed up in a fire truck and ambulance and found us in the driveway and our house flooded throughout with carbon monoxide. They determined the source was our gas fireplace, which previously seemed so warm, welcoming and cozy. They shut it down and cleared the air, setting the standard for professionalism. Imagine how I felt as they congratulated me for thinking so clearly in calling the emergency in and working so quickly getting my family to safety.

Do not hesitate to call 911 if an alarm goes off in your house. I know that’s so obvious it sounds stupid. Trust me.

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