Sometimes we just have to experience things first-hand and then learn from our mistakes. This is what I learned this past week...
On Friday morning I returned home from a run to a house that smelled funny - a combination of smoke/fire and a high school chemistry lab. Noticing that one of the knobs to our gas stove was not exactly in the off position, I attributed the smell to our gas range. I preceded to make myself some tea and sat down in my sunroom with my epidemiology take-home exam. About an hour later, half of the electricity in my house went out (and in some areas of the house, we had a brown out) and my carbon monoxide detector went off. When the CO detector went off, I didn't know what it was at first, but I followed the sound upstairs.
LESSON #1 LEARNED: test home alarm systems when they are installed so you know what they are when they go off. This will be helpful in the event of an emergency.
When I walked into the room with the CO detector, I assumed that the power outage/problem was the reason for the alarm going off. I was wrong! The alarm was beeping and the normally green light had switched to red with a warning "move to fresh air". Not sure what to do next, I unplugged the detector (because it was so loud), found the cat, moved into the bedroom, opened all the windows, and called David. In a word, I panicked.
LESSON #2 LEARNED: Know what to do when house alarms go off or problems occur. Knowing who to call and how to respond is just as important as installing the CO detector. A family plan for how to respond is necessary.
LESSON #3 LEARNED: Husbands do not know everything. And no good can come from you calling them panicked.
As I was on the phone with David, the DC Fire Department pulled up in front of our house; blocking the street with their giant fire truck. I ran outside to find out what was going on... It turns out that one of my neighbors called the fire department because they, too, had a terrible smell in their house and they noticed that smoke was billowing out of a manhole in the middle of our street.
LESSON #4 LEARNED: The fire department, along with the police and EMS, are here to help. When something isn't right, it is better to be safe than sorry. Don't be afraid to call them even if you are unsure about what is going on. In my case, I should not have burning chemicals smell in my house. This is one of those times when calling the fire department is a good/prudent idea
The fire department suspected that there was an electrical burn under our street (all power lines in DC are below ground). To be sure, the firemen came through our house (twice) to investigate the smell and check for hot spots around our fuse box and outlets. Pepco, our local power company, showed up (quite casually, I might add) about an hour and a half later. It was determined that the fire was under the street. It took them more than nine hours to get the problem under control.
When I talked to Pepco about the fumes in my house and my CO alarm going off, I was assured that everything was safe because the Pepco employees don't need to wear protective gear and they work in the fumes every day... this coming from the guy who was smoking less than five feet from the manhole that had smoke coming out of it.
LESSON #5 LEARNED: It is better to have a cold house than a smelly house. I aired our house out for another 45 minutes and then left for the afternoon. When I returned we still did not have power (which means no heat), but the smell was almost gone.