Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fire Alarm

Well I got the shit scared out of me today.

It happened as I was leaving my house, I was literally walking out the door. I heard a beeping that took me a second to identify, and then I realized what it was- a smoke alarm. As I am the only person on my street (as far as I know) who owns such exotic items, I knew it must be coming from somewhere in my house. I sighed and shut the door, and I sighed again when I realized that it wasn't any of the alarms in the house itself, but was coming from the one I installed in my attic. This meant I had to unlock more doors, get my ladder, carry it upstairs, and check the attic. I wasn't taking this very seriously yet.

I installed the smoke detector in my attic for two reasons: first, in case something catches fire in my attic I want to know about it, but second and more importantly in case something catches fire in my stupid neighbor Mario's house. I know he has no smoke alarms, I know he has really shoddy wiring, I know he has stupid tenants, and I share a wall with him, so his problems potentially become my problems. I figured that any smoke on his side would pass to mine quite easily, so I placed the smoke detector in the peak, as close to the wall I share with Mario as possible.

I went out my back door to get my ladder, which I keep outside. I looked up at Mario's roof, and my mood changed instantly. There was smoke rising from his house.

I freaked out and ran back through the house and into the house next door. There's at least a dozen people who live there, and they already knew something was burning. Nobody knew where Mario was, but he never goes too far away. Someone said there was nobody in the burning room, somebody else said they were going to break down the door. I ran back to my house.

I got the ladder and scurried upstairs with it, opened the trapdoor into the attic and had a look. It was filling up with dark smoke and the smell of burning plastic. It didn't look like my side was in imminent danger of catching fire, so I descended the ladder once more on my way back to Mario's house.

As I went back downstairs I grabbed my second-floor fire extinguisher, the one filled with water. Once I got to the front door, I had second thoughts and left it inside rather than run into Mario's place with it. I'd already emptied an extinguisher at a neighbor's house when I probably didn't need to, so I decided to have a look first.

I ran up the stairs in Mario's house. It was full of people coming out of the various rooms, some dealing with the emergency, some just standing there. The door to the room in question had been knocked down, and the fire had been put out already. It had been a mattress burning- the same thing that killed my neighbor Antonio.

I have a friend who used to live in a gentrifying building in the Lower East Side. Most of his neighbors were of Chinese descent, living in run-down apartments. Whenever someone moved out, the landlord completely renovated the vacant apartment and probably quadrupled the rent. One time something went wrong in his apartment, and all his neighbors used it as an excuse to go in and have a look around- suddenly his apartment was filled with curious ethnic Chinese.

I took the opportunity to do the same thing in Mario's house. I knew I wasn't needed, I hadn't been invited, but I was sure as shit going to have a look around while I had an excuse. I wanted to see what these rooms looked like, and what other potential hazards might be lurking there. The wiring was dubious at best, the floors were wobbly and the place looks only marginally fit for human habitation. Mario had shown up at this point, looking as keyed up and freaked out as I was. I asked him about the wiring and he said it was fine. He showed me the circuit breakers he had installed and said all was well. I expressed skepticism, and advised him to have a look at his wiring. A couple times.

Apparently it was a cell phone charger that had caused the fire, or at least that was the best we could figure out. The burned mattress was dragged outside, the blackened wall was washed down, the downstairs roomers started complaining that water was pouring down the wall into their room. I left. I still had stuff to do. I doubt the fire department got called, not that they would have been much help if and when they eventually showed up.

I have another longish post waiting to be proofread before I post it. It's mostly me grumbling about how I don't exactly love my neighborhood. One of my first post-emergency thoughts this afternoon is that maybe it's time to sell this house and move on. Ironically, in spite of its faults, this is the house I have lived in the longest in my entire life- a full five years in January. Also, I own it and don't owe on it, and it's about the only thing of real value I have at this point.

The smoke detector that got my attention this afternoon was only installed about a month ago. I bought it in the US, which is where all my smoke detectors have come from- some bought by me, some brought by family and friends. I've never actually seen them for sale here in Brazil. I'm not sure if it was what got the attention of my neighbors, they very likely would not have recognized the sound, but it may have. It may have averted a disaster. I sure am glad it's there. I thought I was done with buying and installing smoke detectors, now that I have eight installed in my house. But I'm thinking maybe I should pick up a few more and give them to my neighbors. It might be a worthwhile investment.

When I first saw this house, one of the things that appealed to me most about it was its wooden floors and big old wooden staircase. They reminded me of home. I didn't even think about this as a potential liability- I mean, I grew up in houses made entirely of wood and we even had wood heat in most of them. You learn to be careful so your house doesn't burn down. But here, they aren't careful like that- most of them are used to living in houses of concrete, which don't burn down so easily. And like I said, fire safety equipment is not easily available and the fire department is not exactly on the ball. There are no fire safety laws hanging over my neighbors to keep them on their toes. And if his house burns, it's almost guaranteed that mine will too. I feel like my house is a disaster waiting to happen.


Troy said...

Markuza, I'm glad nothing was seriously damaged in the fire. However I noticed something that you said in your post about a ladder you keep outside. I do building security consulting sometimes and one of the most common forms of entry is using a ladder to enter through an open untended upstairs window, as most of us feel safe enough to leave a window upstairs open if we feel it's unreachable. Some people even sleep with upstairs windows open at night. You ought to move that ladder inside or chain it to something solid outside so that you're not inviting a break-in with your own equipment. If you can't do any of the above, pile a bunch of clanky metal objects on top of it so any attempt to move it will alert someone. Just looking out - Troy.

markuza said...

Thanks Troy- you are right about the ladder. It is kept in a small room out back of our main house, so it is out of sight, and that room is only accessible to someone who has a bigger ladder or rappels down into our 'courtyard' or 'patio' or whatever it is. But I have thought to chain it to something anyways- it's an excellent idea.

Pedra said...

I'm so glad that you're place is ok and that the fire alarm did it's job. Are you seriously thinking of moving? Where would you go?


PS. It's getting super cold here and poor Vilma is freezing to death!

markuza said...

Hey Cheryl, thanks for your concern... I don't know how serious I am about leaving, but if someone offered to trade their three bedroom apartment on the FAR side of the building across the street for my house I'd be tempted to go for it. It's quieter over there and no wood in the construction. As we speak the tenant in the room that burned is raving quite loudly- she's either drunk or smoking crack would be my guess... I'd love to live in Rio Vermelho... or Boston ;-) Or Portland! Tell Vilma she ain't seen nothing yet. Nah, that's mean.

AkuTyger said...

The houses in my condo have wooden steps...

markuza said...

do you have an alternate escape route, or do you live on the 1st floor? I hope the answer to one of the above is yes