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Dr. Kestner: Are your smoke alarms as dangerously ineffective as these?

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On Jan. 11 of this year, my wife, daughter and I learned first-hand how frightening a house fire can be. Fortunately, we escaped injury. Although this story could have easily been one of great tragedy, thanks to God’s grace and the Murfreesboro Fire Department it is one of major inconvenience instead.

We had moved into a 10-year-old home last summer. It had been a very hectic autumn and we were looking forward to a day of rest on a cold but clear Sunday afternoon. I had bought a new load of firewood so that we could stay inside and enjoy the beautiful winter evening.

My wife, Ginny and I had put our infant daughter to bed earlier and were talking in the living room. I heard the baby cry on her monitor. She was crying hard, obviously very upset by something. I went to check on her and found that she had become ill in her crib. Ginny and I went to work, rebathing her, changing the bed and getting her ready for a second try at a good night’s sleep.

As I rocked her to sleep, I wondered what could have made her ill. My wife had mentioned being nauseous shortly before her first bedtime. I thought perhaps they were both being affected by a virus.

Finally she was sound asleep. I put her down and left her room. As I closed her door, I was immediately struck by an unpleasant smoky odor.

As I descended the steps Ginny was busy opening a door to clear the pungent air. At that moment we both noticed a small stream of smoke coming from the electrical outlet in the middle of the living room floor.


My wife bolted up the stairs and soon reappeared with the baby wrapped in a blanket. I tossed her the car keys as we passed. “Get in the car and turn on the heat.” It was twenty degrees outside and it wouldn’t take long for Eliana to become hypothermic.

I called 911. The dispatcher’s immediate order was “Get everyone out of the house now. Help is on the way.” I would soon learn the value of this urgent command.

During the call, I reached for a flashlight, ran down the stairs to cut off the electrical breakers and grabbed a fire extinguisher. I rushed back up the stairs in the now pitch black house and discharged the extinguisher into the outlet. No effect at all. The smoke was now rising faster and thicker. I realized that there was absolutely nothing I could do on my own to stop the fire.

As I exited the front door, fire trucks began arriving. I looked for Ginny and Eliana. Both cars were dark and empty. Where were they?! I turned to my neighbor’s house. Lights were on. They had seen the fire trucks and had brought my wife and daughter inside. My neighbor was on his way over to see what he could do to help. (We are blessed to have wonderful next-door neighbors.)

I followed the firefighters back into the house to show them where the fire originated. This was only minutes since we had first noticed the smoke, and yet the main floor of my house was so thick with smoke that it was unsafe to be there for long.

I led the fire crew downstairs to show them which part of the basement ceiling was immediately beneath the outlet. Their initial thought was the same as mine; it must be an electrical fire since the smoke was coming from the outlet. As soon as they tore open the drywall ceiling they realized that the problem was much larger than that. Smoke poured out of the fresh gash in the drywall.

It was at that point that the smoke alarms in the basement began to shriek loudly. I realized that until that moment, the main floor smoke alarms had not responded! Why had the alarms not alerted earlier?

Find out next week. By the way, your home probably has the same kind of smoke alarm system.

Dr. Mark Kestner
Read more from:
Dr. Mark Kestner, Living Well, Voices
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