Chirping Smoke Alarms - No Music to Pet’s Ears! (Part I)

Our Boston Terrier, Lilly, has faced - and largely overcome - some remarkable challenges in her lifetime.

As a puppy, she was given as a gift to a family in which no one took responsibility for her care and training. One too many poops in the house coupled with sour finances and she was given the boot. Her ability to learn and be nurtured by us let her become our forever doggie-daughter.

When we adopted her, she had no idea how to play with others or how to soothe herself. The brave little pioneer in her that first mouthed, then carried her toy caterpillar over to me three-and-a-half years ago has grown into a sweet ’n sassy playmate. 

On top of that, Lilly had a zero-to-sixty-in-one-second reactivity to other dogs, possibly in part due to her having to fight for resources and attention in her former home. Over time, Lilly responded well to our researched “desensitization” techniques and she has been a star in our local playgroup.

But now, Lilly is facing her biggest challenge ever. It’s not the 90-pound Doberman down the street; it’s a six-ounce smoke alarm gone wild.

Her nightmare began several nights ago. It was bedtime and Lilly had nestled between my wife, Susan, and me - as she always does - with her cuddle blanket. Just then, a single smoke alarm in the hallway between the bedrooms in our condo “chirped.” Thirty seconds later, it chirped again.

The bed began shaking. This was no earthquake and neither Susan nor I had rheumatic fever. We reached over simultaneously and placed our hand on Lilly. She was trembling uncontrollably.

We had just replaced all the smoke alarms in our condo last year. The hallway unit had been triggered a few times when we were cooking and forgot to turn on the fan. It had been otherwise been quiet - it’s trusty green light winking every now and then.

Susan pulled Lilly close and reassured her while I got up and walked into the hallway. Sure enough, the green light now glinted red. I unfolded our step stool and stood on the top rung, replaced the nine-volt battery and pushed the reset button. The unit emitted a few pulsing shrieks, then fell silent.

Five minutes later, Lilly ceased quaking. I crawled back into bed with my family and turned out the light. At 3 A.M. we heard chirping again. This was no midnight serenade by a nest of finches in the trees outside.

The average smoke detector emits chirps and alarms measuring 85 decibels (dB) at 10 feet. By comparison, human speech and laughter registers 55-65dB while passenger jets wing in and out at 100-110dB. At a frequency level of at least 3000 Hertz (Hz), smoke detectors are, to say the least, shrill. In contrast, the fundamental frequency of human speech ranges from 85Hz to 255Hz.

Lilly shuddered all over. Susan and I held her between us as we scoured the internet for solutions. The beeping successively alternated between units causing me to lurch to and fro throughout our house. The experience reminded me of playing Whack-A-Mole at the carnival when I was a kid.

Eventually, we removed every battery from every detector, disconnected them from the wall mounts and pushed the reset buttons to “diffuse” the remaining charge inside each unit.

Lilly took longer to soothe this time, but she finally nodded off - I can’t say the same for Susan and me.

The following day, a bedraggled Susan hired a handyman who promptly responded to reset and re-install our alarms. To our amazement (and frustration), the chirping resumed that night and continued even after I removed the units as before; the chirps were coming from INSIDE the ceiling!

We phoned our perplexed handyman who theorized that - since multiple smoke detectors in the same home are usually interconnected - there must be an as yet undiscovered smoke detector somewhere. He offered to return in two days, after we’d turned over every square inch of our living space, to help us sleuth an answer.

Several doses of homeopathic anxiety relief, a “containment wrap” and long walks during the day have helped quell Lilly’s quaking to a quiver. She appears reluctant to come back home after we’ve been out, but, God love her, she’s a trooper!

Handyman has returned. Stay tuned for Part II where we will (hopefully) have a resolution to this electronic puzzle and explore the world of pet-friendly smoke alarms as well as some suggestions on how to improve them.