Life as we know it

Do smoke detectors ruin more lives than they save?

My wife was shaking me. Up, up, up from a dead sleep, I emerged into a room full of smoke … alarm beeps. Shrill and insistent and echoing through the house from one linked alarm to another, the whole damned system was going off and did its job — to a degree. It woke my wife. Not me. I wear ear plugs, not to avoid smoke alarms, but to avoid little disruptive noises like birds outside or my snoring wife inside.

Thus dragged from blissful slumber, I joined my wife in running around like chickens with our hair on fire. Metaphorically speaking, of course. There was no fire. We were both naked, so we might have created sparks, but that was inappropriate to the greater need to identify the cause of that infernal sound. Beep — beep — beep.

We got the ladder. We pressed reset buttons. We found batteries and started randomly replacing batteries.

Nothing worked. Where were the instructions on how to deactivate the damned alarm? Did we even have instructions?

Eventually, maybe 20 minutes into what I feared was going to disturb the neighbors enough that one of them would knock on our door and find a naked person staring back at them, the alarms went quiet.

We took several breaths. Ahhh, oxygen. Then we went back to bed, eyes wide open.

Almost to sleep, we both heard it at the same time. A distant beeping, in the hallway, then closer, then in our room.

Back into battle — I seriously considered getting my shotgun and blowing the evil beasts off the ceiling — my wife dialed up some advice online, and we deduced that maybe one of the older units in the house we bought a year earlier had failed. They do that. These units, by best guess, dated to the construction year of 1997. So we unplugged the apparent offender from the interconnected system, and all went quiet again.

My wife went back to bed. I poured a glass of scotch. And another, before drowsing back to bed myself.

The next day, I replaced the two older detectors, and prayed that my efforts would give us peaceful sleep for another several years — unless there was actually a fire.

But that prompted this question: Do smoke detectors really save lives, or just provide a universal source of irritation and sleeplessness?

Of course, the answer exists, to a degree. If you’ve had the same thought, check out this analysis of fire death data on the Freakonomics web site.

This raises serious doubts. A lot of other factors have contributed to a massive reduction in fire deaths. I’m still looking for the data linking murders to aggravated psychotic states triggered by failing smoke alarms.