When he hears that fire alarm

Dot writes: Hugh is heavily into Fireman Sam at the moment. This is alright by us as we prefer Norman Price to Spud. (Ken thinks what Norman needs is a brother; I think everyone in Pontypandy needs to get more proficient with a fire blanket. By the way, I wonder what happened to Norman’s dad? What grief throbs beneath Dilys’s dowdy curlers and hobbles her tentative romance with Trevor the Bus? And if it occurs to you that I spend too much time pondering the lives of characters in children’s television programmes, you’re probably right.) Hugh insists on the later series, objecting to the earlier with cries of “Not dis Sam! Helicopter!” Yesterday he decided to pretend that the wooden wigwam in the playground was a house on fire, but as part of the game was to go inside it and hide he may not have been watching that closely.

I have always had, not a phobia exactly, but a heightened nervousness around fire. When I got my own bedroom at the age of eleven, a roof extension at the top of the house, one of my first acts was to plan my fire escape: out the window, onto the roof of the bathroom and down the drainpipe. I still have a recurring dream that there’s a fire in the house, or often in the corner of the room, and I am trying with agonising slowness to gather up all the stuff I can’t possibly leave behind when I leave. When I was about three the church in my village burnt down, and I wonder if that left a lasting impression on me.

The nearest I’ve come to being involved in a fire myself, however, was when I was a second year student at Oxford and living in a student residence at the back of a timber-framed inn. It was an obvious fire-trap: a warren of rickety corridors, twists and turns and stairs that led up and then down; my own room, round three corners from the entrance on a corridor charmingly known as ‘death row’, was one of the quickest of access from the front door. All through the autumn term the fire alarm seemed to go off almost every night, and we’d file out to shiver in the road while yellow-suited firemen searched in vain for an errant toaster or fag butt before declaring the all-clear. One night, however, I was at a party in one of the bigger student rooms when someone knocked on the door and shouted “Get out, there’s a fire!” Fortunately we didn’t shrug it off as a prank, because as it happened the girl who had the room right by the entrance had left a candle burning and gone out, and there was now an interesting seep of black smoke from under her door. Her room was badly damaged, but the rest of the building escaped. We were back in our rooms the next night; she was fined by the college, though as far as I remember we students were oddly untroubled that she had nearly incinerated the lot of us. The fire alarm hadn’t gone off at all.

Our intensive course of Fireman Sam prompted Ken to look at the ceiling and notice that we didn’t actually have a smoke alarm. Then he looked up citizen’s advice on the internet and found that our landlord has a legal obligation to provide one. So when the electrician came round for his latest palliative care session with our boiler Ken got him to install some smoke alarms. Let’s hope they work. And let’s be careful not to need them.

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9 thoughts on “When he hears that fire alarm

  1. laura

    Phobia or not, this was an excellent idea. I assume that the electrician gave you battery operated units, not those wired to the house system. Since my father designed several of these devices, I can suggest that the models with “torch” lights don’t offer much. They usually only light the ceiling area where all the smoke accumulates. Also, I take great comfort in having small fire extinguishers in the house, esp. one near the kitchen. Isn’t your landlord required to provide this, too?

    1. kenanddot

      I don’t think he’s required to provide fire extinguishers. The law on standards of rental accommodation is being gradually tightened, but it hasn’t got that far.

      Yes, the smoke detectors are battery operated and they don’t seem to have lights. Interesting that your dad designed some of them – I wonder if we have one of his?

  2. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    Our smoke alarms have proved so sensitive that the neighbours grilling a steak has been known to set it off …

  3. I share your fear of fire, especially as in these wooden houses in Norway, any fire tends to be catastrophic. Good you got the smoke alarms. We have extinguishers too which I remember to dust every so often (and we rent). Not sure I’ d have the wherewithal to use one if needed though. I’d probably grab the kids and run. Maybe I should watch Fireman Sam – or Brannmann Sam as we call him here – for tips; my son is a big fan.

    1. kenanddot

      Fireman Sam tip: if haystacks start to smell of caramel they may be about to burst into flames:-)

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, I’m not sure I’d be calm enough to use the fire-extinguisher if we had one, especially as I vaguely remember there are different types of extinguisher for different sorts of fire.

  4. Belle Inconnue

    I acidentally set a whole stack of tea towels on fire once, when I was a student, by leaving them too close to the cooker. I ran around flapping my handing and wailing ‘oh god there’s a fire, we’re all going to die!’ before my very efficient housemate came and put the fire out by throwing a wet towel over the whole lot. felt quite foolish. am rather terrified of fire, but not in a way that actually prompts me to do anything useful like plan escape route or test fire alarms.

  5. I totally understand that heightened nervousness. I blame it on American public school and all those firemen who came to tell us kids how likely it was that a fire would burn down our houses. I made my parents tell me the escape plan every night before we went to bed. Fortunately, this gripping fear has eased with age.

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