The fear of fire is always on my mind.

Maybe it’s because I’m married to a firefighter. For me, that means that a bon voyage off-to-work-hug-and-kiss-fest is rarely complete without me sending one stupid and pleading thought out into the universe: please, please don’t let anything terrible happen.

baby with FDNY helmet


Maybe it’s because being married to his man also means always being reminded to unplug the toaster after using it and directed to notice where the emergency exits are when we take our seats in a theater. (Trust me, no matter how handsome he is, this is always an awkward start to a night.)

Maybe it isn’t marriage but motherhood that’s made fire a threat that’s always in the back of my mind. My most distinct memory of my first Christmas with Isla is one of a horrifying scene on the morning news. Sometime in the middle of the night, a blaze tore through a home in nearby Stamford, Connecticut killing three young girls and their grandparents. Images of a once idyllic-looking waterfront house now smoldering and the faces of the innocent young children who had lived there kept flashing on the screen. It was one of those stories I could not bare to watch and could not stop watching at the same time. A new mother myself, I was tortured with the wonder of how this other mother, a survivor of the blaze, would ever go forward to endure such grief.

Or maybe, just maybe, I’m the kind of person who somehow thinks that protecting herself from ‘the worst that can happen’ is as easy is imagining it first? As if worrying about possible tragedy might magically ward it away…

Regardless of whether marriage, motherhood, or a catastrophizing personalty (yes to all you budding analysts out there, I’m aware of my ‘ish) is to blame, I’m definitely afraid of a fire. That fact makes it no surprise that a smoke alarm report on the NBC’s Today Show caught my undivided attention yesterday morning.

The reporter claimed that the type of alarms used in 90% of homes—called ionization alarms—aren’t effective at detecting lethal smoke. He went on to interview an electrical engineering professor at Texas A & M University, who was quoted saying that the use of this type of alarm was responsible for a number of unnecessary deaths each year.

To drive their point home, the engineer, the reporter and a local fire department set up a test to show that it took 36 minutes for the ionization alarm to sound off in response to smoldering fire. In contrast, they did a second test adding another type of alarm, called a photoelectric alarm, which sounded off in 17 minutes. It wasn’t until 21 minutes later that the ionization alarm went off in this second test.

The story went on, very investigatively, to interview an official at the Consumer Product Safety Commission as to why photoelectric alarms aren’t mandated, suggesting something about higher manufacturing costs and lower profits being to blame… but by this time, the story had lost me.

All I could wonder was, could we sleep through a fire for half an hour before our alarm detected it? (And by ‘we’ I mean Isla and I, as this would never happen with my husband home. He can’t detect a whiff of my new shampoo or the stench of a dirty diaper, but he can manage to smell smoke coming from a pile of burning leaves two towns over. Go figure.)

Still, for the nights my husband’s not home, I was was worried. So I called him at work to tell him what I’d just seen and ask him the deal. “Sounds plausible,” he said. “You know, there’s a difference between smoke detection and heat detection?” Oh no. I felt the fire safety lecture coming on, only this time, I’d asked for it. Since I was silent, he dumbed it down and tried again:

“There’s a difference between smoke and flame. Did you know that?”

No, sweetheart, I didn’t know that. Now I do. And I have to run because the baby’s crying, there’s someone at the door, the kettle’s boiling, thank you.

From there, I got on my laptop and quickly discovered that both the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association note that there’s a difference in smoke detectors.

An ionization alarm detects fast moving flame while a photoelectric alarm detects smoldering smoke.

What’s more? Both agencies recommend optimizing protection by installing both kinds of detectors in your home. You can check it out, just like I did, by linking to the USFA and the NFPA sites.

So, today I hit Home Depot and bought a couple of these new dual detectors for our home. duel KIDDE detetcotr alarmAnd, to bring this back to food and the kitchen, I chose one that also has a ‘hush’ button. If your cooking sets off the kitchen alarm frequently (guilty!), this feature allows you to temporarily silence it rather than removing the batteries, which experts warn are often forgotten to be replaced (also guilty!)

So, my public service announcement for today: Check your smoke alarms. Make sure that they detect both flames (ionization) and smoke (photoelectric). If they don’t, upgrade them. At about $21 a pop, it’ll give you one less thing to worry about.