Sunday, April 3, 2011


In any electrical circut, appliances and wiring will burn out to protect fuses.

                                    Robert Byrne

From an early age I was educated to appropriately fear the power of natural electricity,
 but it would be fear of the  made-made sort that would gradually seep into the nucleus of my cells with the ability to set off my 'fight or flight' instinct faster than you can count to one after hearing the first rumble of thunder.  This is not a good thing for a hiker, but I'll get to that at some other time.

My father began his career in the NAVY, and being mechanically inclined, learned the job of maintaining the huge engines that kept the ships he was on from floundering somewhere in the North Atlantic where no amount of intelligent dolphins could lend aid.

The most important things he learned were fire drills for every section of each particular ship. Apparently these drills had a carry-over effect, causing him to arrive home on leave, throw his huge duffel bag down on the porch, fling open the screen door, and yell,   "FIRE!"

Knowing he was due in, my sister and I would glare at each other over the tops of the current books we were reading, give each other the "Here we go again," teeth-sucking, eye-rolling routine, grab our packed-in-case-of-fire-bags and roll out of the house.  It wasn't as easy when Nana was still alive.  In her slowly worsening fog of dementia she believed it every time, and would start throwing anything that meant something dear to her out her bedroom window.  My sister and I were in charge of collecting Nana, which would mean grabbing our bags and trying to bodily wrench her from her things, while trying to convince her  it was just a drill. The neighbors were used to it. They would see things flying out the second floor window and dryly remark, "Jim's home on leave."

After the lumber yard fire, I gained a new respect for Dad's fire drills.

From the time my kids were able to walk, they learned to pack a bag of essentials - always throw a book in there in case it turns out to be an actual fire - line their shoes up at the door before they went to bed, and when the fire alarm went off, to calmly grab their bags, collect shoes at the door, feel the door, if not hot, head like the swallows of Capistrano for the car.     Which was always parked far away from the building.

While living in a cookie-cutter, brick, three story apartment building, the fire alarm had a tendency to go off quite a bit.  Lot of  'food-on-the-stove' calls goin' on there. Lots of drills with my kids grabbing their bags, me grabbing the pet carriers.

 I never realized how numb to drills my kids had become until one day, when we had our own house, I was vacuming.  I had one of those canister things that you dragged along behind you.  I reached the end of the living room and turned to see smoke billowing out of the vacume cleaner, my son nonchalantly standing behind it, staring.   I caught his eye, he said calmly, "oh, fire." and trudged up the stairs to get his bag.  Not knowing when, or if the thing would blow, I opened the front door and kept dragging until the plug popped out of the wall and the vacume cleaner was in the middle of the lawn.  Smoldering.  Five minutes later my son -  the Cub Scout -  is slowly inching his way out the front door with his bag, dragging the cat carrier to which he had roped his sisters bag. 

His sister was not home for the incident. Which may account for her amazement when, after she had put buttered bread in the toaster, the toaster went out the back door.

Were it not for my half Irish blood genetically steering me towards the traditional municipal jobs that would be mainstays for immigrant's survival generations after arriving in this country, I would swear it would be my 'face-the-fear-head-on' attitude that drove me into my career in public service. Many years later psychologist's would name the 'get-right-back-on-the-horse' routine something fancy, along with the "cure" for it. They would call it flooding. At the time I transferred into the dispatching aspect of emergency services I viewed it as more of a control issue. If something in my house was going to burn, at least I was in the first line of contact feeling some minimal control over FIRE.

After I was hired for my first dispatch position, I was trained by one  of the most competant fire dispatchers I have ever known (yes PB, I'm referring to you), who also happened to be a former cop and volunteer for the FD.  This was way back in the day of one dispatcher for five towns, police, fire, rescue, the whole nine yards - most with volunteer departments - and the cops serving as first responders.  It was also the time of non-clearly marked roads, fire and access roads with no names but developed properties, usually found by directions given as,  'pass the big rock, take a left onto the dirt by the dead oak tree.'

I had a few small fires, and one room burn-outs before the big one came along.  Naturally it was in an ancient, corn cob insulated, three story farmhouse out in no man's land.

 Were it not for Gladys - a fellow dispatcher and friend - who knew every nook and cranny of the town she had lived in her entire life, even the old firefighters probably would not have found the home, located as deep in the hills as it was.  Gladys dispatched for BASE 500, a privately owned dispatch center that covered what was left of the towns not covered by us.  BASE 500 had a lot more transmitting power than our municipal facilities, thus when Gladys heard someone confused about a location, she would switch to our frequency, blasting us all out of our seats with perfect directions.

The call from an elderly, bedridden woman came in around 1 AM.  She said she smelled smoke, feared her house was on fire, and her care-taker had left for the night.  I dispatched the units, all volunteers racing out of their homes into the night, and while signing on all began asking exactly where the house was located.  Though Gladys came blasting over our frequency with perfect directions to the home, it wasn't enough to save the situation,. The woman would perish.

I ended up speaking to the frightened elderly woman confined to her bed, unable to walk to save herself, until smoke inhalation finally overtook her.  The old home was fully involved by the time the trucks all got there to start dousing it with tons of water, and although the response time - Thanks to Gladys - was incredible considering the variables, it never could have been fast enough to save that poor woman.

I hadn't quite gotten over that when the next big one came along. It would be comically dramatic, though not fatal. Some guy called on the red line to say that he had a "small" stove fire and could we send just one truck just in case he couldn't handle it himself.  Needless to say the fire department does not do custom orders for obvious reasons.  He got a full assignment sent to his house, which he heard, before seeing, coming down his street.  He called me back screaming.  "I JUST ASKED FOR ONE TRUCK LADY."  The first  arriving trucks on the scene were calling for a second alarm and screaming at me to tell the guy to get out of the house.  Meanwhile the guy could hear the radio through the phone and said to tell them he had his kitchen sink sprayer and was dousing the fire, oh, and it was almost out too.  What the guy didn't know was the fire had gone straight into the walls of the house, so while he stood in his kitchen calmly spraying the stove, the entire exterior of his home was engulfed in flames.   It turned into one of those incidents where one of  the cops, those brave souls who run toward danger, as opposed to away from it, took it upon himself and, despite my warning not to,  entered the home to physically drag the guy out of the house.  Ever since that fire I can't tell you how many police officers I have worked with that have done the same thing, ending up with melted uniforms and burns, to save those who refuse to save themselves.

Never The Less.....

When I moved into this apartment late last summer, the PhD candidate from the third floor met me in the driveway to introduce herself, and lend a few warnings  pointers.  

"I work midnights." she said, and without a breath in between she continued.   "The smoke detectors are all hard-lined and if one goes off, they all go off."  "The people that used to live in your apartment were constantly burning food on the stove."   "They also would throw burning appliances over the side of the porch onto the lawn."  

Well, at that last remark I felt myself begining to pale before her very eyes.  I wasn't sure if I had FIRE HAZARD in neon lights on my forehead. After all, once one has set a toilet on fire (  that particular doozy may be found here  )-inadvertently I might add -  there's just no tellin'.

I began to feel an understanding, if not even a slight affection, for those who had come to live here before me.  There was a time, before I  finally come to the realization anything I touch that has a plug is going to light itself on fire when I least expect it, I had lots of things with plugs.  Through the course of my life, I have thrown dust-busters, toasters, toaster ovens,  vaccume cleaners, electric sweepers, and even a small black and white portable TV   'over the side.'   Though the TV was in my younger days and went out my bedroom window when it began to smoke.  

I am darkly familiar with the smell of electrical burning, as in flourescent light ballasts, and my computer desk top power supply that burnt out last month.  Or the USB connection to my digital camera that unfortunaltely  emitted that acrid odor at the very same moment I plugged it in, which caused a little bluish gray poof of smoke and  a bit of a shock I could have done without. 

While living at the farm it was impossible to avoid freezing to death while taking showers during the winter in the huge, uninsulated house.  I bought an oil-filled electric radiator for the bathroom, rationalizing that since it was enclosed, with no open flame, it would be safe.    I am more frequently wrong, than right in my assumptions...

I always left the thing unplugged unless it was actually being used, so I plugged it in one day, turned it on, went to the kitchen to do something, and for no known reason, promptly returned to the bathroom heater.  There I found a small flame, about the size of a pilot light, in between the electrical thermostat thingy, and the actual oil-filled thingys  (Yuh, I'm one of those, don't know any technical jargon, in a pinch I will attempt sad charades to describe things in person, and the most fun is trying to reproduce noises the car makes for the mechanics, while watching their attempt to control hysterics....).  Well anyway, I hadn't left the thing alone for more than two minutes, here is this flame I am staring at in disbelief, that within the space of thirty seconds had grown exponentially.   Luckily my panic training kicked in swiftly. Despite the urge to stop, drop and roll right out the door, I snapped the plug out of the wall, raced to the kitchen to grab a truckload box of baking soda, and quickly threw it all on the flame, which was still growing, despite it's lack of power.

And although the apartment we are in now is simply loaded to the gills with GFI outlets, it is, as my son says, not what it seems.  Some plugs with GFI outlets are connected to plugs in other rooms. Only one plug may be used at a time in others, lest the breaker in the basement trip. Most recently my coffee grinder burnt out before the GFI popped.  In fact it never did pop.

I feel the need to document my relationship with fire due to an article I read years ago.  I cut it out and stuck it in the fire-proof safe, just in case someone arrives to visit and finds not me, but a human shaped pile of ashes on the floor.  The article reads;

Spontaneous human combustion is most likely to occur during a period of strong magnetic disturbance. No one knows how or why a person seemingly ignites without any external fuel, leaving behind little more than a heap of ashes, an uncharred limb, and a pungent blue smoke hanging in the air, but many victims were wearing slippers at the time of occurence.

I do not own a pair of slippers.........


  1. I have laughed myself absolutely silly...loved your Dad's Fire Drills and your poor grandma! Your whole post is marvelous! Well except for the people who is such a horrible thing when out of control. But the family relationship to fire safety is hysterically funny!

  2. Oh I can relate to a lot of this!! My grandfather was district officer and Drill Instructor for Sydney Fibrigade in the 20's and 30's... so we were taught a healthy respect for fire and it's causes..

    I also called the firebrigade to my apartment once when locked out.. long story but stuff was on the stove and I knew the local firebrigade.. sadly I also knew the local coppers [ex-boyfriend].. needless to say it was a debacle..

    Have a lovely week.. and thanks for popping over my way... ciao xxx Julie

  3. I have a healthy respect (fear) of fire; I don't like to ever burn candles in my house, for example. Too many fires are started by candles.

    I once turned on the stove to melt some congealed grease so I could pour it off into a can - walking away and promptly forgetting about the pan. A short time later the smoke detectors went off and there was a black cloud in the living room. My step son was watching cartoons on TV, he got up to turn the volume on the TV to override the smoke alarm noise.

    Needless to say we established a fire plan and a meeting place after that. I still worry about dryer vents and cooking fire potentials. I once saw my daughter put down a pot holder onto the stove top. Fortunately it was not on, but had it been... yeah, fire is dangerous stuff.

  4. GREAT story and post!
    I don't know if you've ever seen the "The Great Santini" (starring Robert Duvall), but your Dad's fire drills, reminded me of that movie.
    I've been around a long time and I'm very happy to say that there has never been a fire anywhere I've lived! Have a great weekend!

  5. I'll look for it on NetFlix Pat. One of the funnier aspects of the fire thing was a fellow dispatcher - new to the game - had an older home. Everytime a Big One would come in while he was working he's stop at the hardware store on his way home and buy another smoke detector.... We began to imagine his house looking like Walter Matthau's truck (In Grumpy Old Men) with all the pine tree air freshners hanging in it. Smoke detector wallpaper one can never be too careful.... :}

  6. This is a great post. The part about the vague directions used where roads are not well marked reminded me of a "blond" joke I once heard:

    A blond, who had recently moved to an area similar to what you described in your post, called the fire department to report that her house was on fire. The dispatcher asked if she could tell the fire fighters how to get there. The blond replied, "Well, duh! Use the red truck!"

  7. Linda: We got a lot of ---

    "Where do you live?"
    "Ah, in my HOUSE, where do you THINK?"
    "And WHERE would that house be located?"
    "In Connecticut."

    Really happens, thank GAUD for E-911..... :}

  8. You had me engaged from the first paragraph.

    I am extremely sensitive to the smell of anything electrical burning and during a week am known to utter those words formed in a question, quite frequently. I am also a "lock" fanatic. Anything that has a lock on it, usually gets locked. Fire and locks are a bad combination.

    I really enjoy your writing style.