My Dad spent 31 years on the fire department of Vancouver, Washington, retiring with the rank of Battalion Chief. As might be expected, our house was well equipped with smoke detectors and our family had an evacuation plan in the event of any emergency, but Dad made sure we were most prepared to get out of the house unscathed if it were on fire. He also had a very strict set of bylaws in his fire safety manifesto. Never leave the dryer running and be sure to triple check that the stove, coffee pot and iron are off before leaving the house unattended even for just a few minutes. Keep bedroom doors closed at night while you’re sleeping. “This is to keep the fire out as long as possible and give you time to climb out the window” he would remind my sister and me periodically from the time we were old enough to understand. And finally, if you hear the smoke alarm, always feel the closed door for heat before opening it.
This last rule was the big one. The one that required testing and validation. “If it’s hot, climb out your bedroom window and head straight to the neighbors house like we practiced. If it’s not, make sure you say loudly enough for me to hear ‘I’m feeling the door and it’s not hot’ in case I’m testing you”. Would we remember to run our tiny hands, in our barely awake stupor, over the door’s surface prior to yanking it open, seeking to clear up the confusion about what the horrible noise was in the hallway? Would the screechy, chirping alarm even rouse us from our deep slumber? Would we remember to shout out the heat status of the door or would our words fail us? Dad’s randomly timed drills, sometimes just minutes after we had pulled the covers up to our chins and turned out the lights or sometimes after we had reached our deepest of REM sleep, would get the answers to those questions.
He’d sneak down the stairs and position himself in the middle of the hallway, pressing the “test weekly” button on the alarm that hung from the ceiling in perfect symmetry between our bedroom doors and then he would wait. It only took one time facing Dad and hearing him say “You didn’t feel the door so you’re dead! You either burned to death or died of smoke inhalation!” for us to remember to follow protocol every time thereafter. Even all these years removed from my Dad’s fire drills whenever I hear a smoke alarm I find myself saying “I’m feeling the door Dad. It’s not hot. Can I go back to bed now?”