Mary is seen here with her heroes from Chestnut Hill Engine 37: firefighters Joe Melnick, Charles Winrow and Lt. Claude Smith.

by Mary Gulivindala

I have smoke detectors strategically dispersed around my home in Chestnut Hill. My home is small, so they’re not far apart. I change my batteries when I hear the tiny beep that signals me to do so, and yet, if my home caught on fire, I would probably sleep through it. How do I know this? I have evidence.

A year ago when I was working at a retreat center, the heat set off the fire alarms, and the building was evacuated twice in one week. All of my bunk mates left the building. TWO TIMES I slept through them. I didn’t hear a thing, so I never did leave the building. (And yet my alarm clock somehow does wake me up.)

Last week in the middle of the night an alarm went off while I was sleeping. In some dream state I ignored it for a long time until my dog, Henri, started panting and shaking over my slumbering face. Henri doesn’t like the high-pitched sound that apparently only he can hear. My two sons and I slept right through it.

Finally I woke to realize it was the smoke detector. Groggily I got out of bed, went downstairs to the kitchen, grabbed the broom handle, knocked the alarm off the wall and sleepwalked back to my bed. Not once did I think my house was on fire. I didn’t even check. Since I’ve survived many false alarms, my attitude is blasé.

However, on Tuesday, Aug. 27, at about 4:30 a.m., I called upon Chestnut Hill’s very own firefighters, stationed on Highland Avenue one block west of Germantown, to come to my aid in what was an “almost crisis.” Similar to having your cat up in a tree in need of a tall ladder.

It happened around 3 a.m. I started to stir in my sleep when a shrill sound began vibrating in the air. I must have been in the deepest stage of my R.E.M. sleep pattern. Although I heard the sound somewhere in dreamland, I wouldn’t wake up. Finally I came to at 3:30 and heard the deafening sound of the smoke alarm downstairs. My first response? I was pissed. Come on, really? Why are they tormenting me at that ridiculous hour of the early morning?

Angrily and undressed, I went downstairs ready to swing a bat when I eerily noticed that this was not a familiar sound. This was louder and more annoying than the previous alarms. In a daze I looked around and started stepping from room to room trying to detect where the sound was coming from. I was baffled! It was teasing and taunting me. I woke my 14-year-old son and asked him to help me. He begrudgingly came downstairs, looked around and said miserably, “I don’t know!” and went back to bed! I was so angry I yelled up the steps that if it was a real fire, I would let him (expletive deleted)! I was enraged by the sequence of events!

I went into the dining room and saw a smoke detector that didn’t look like any others in the house. When I bought the house, a security system was in place. I dragged a chair over, climbed up, started covering the smoke detector with a shirt to hear if it would muffle the sound. Finally I decided this has to be the origin of the unbearable noise.

I busted off the cover, and wham, there were a bunch of colored wires screwed into various connectors; no battery, frigging great. I jumped down, grabbed a screwdriver, climbed back up and got to work remembering exactly which color wire was connected to what so when I would have to rewire, I would know what I was doing. I did disconnect all the wires, but the siren continued shrilling into the night!

I was over an hour into the project by this time, and the last thing I wanted to do was call 911 because I couldn’t get a fire detector to stop blaring. Living just one block from the fire station on Highland Avenue, however, I looked up the direct number and called. It rang and rang, but no one picked up. I thought of running down the street and banging on the door but resisted the temptation. I had to humble myself and call 911.

“Hello, 911” the operator said. I said, “My name is Mary Gulivindala, and I live at —– . I don’t have a fire, but … ” The operator cut in, “I have to transfer you to the Fire Department.” PAUSE. Oh crap; this sucks. “Fire Department; what is your emergency?” Again, name, address and “I DON’T HAVE A FIRE, BUT … ”

“Ma’am, we have to dispatch a unit once 911 is called,” and he hung up on me. I started praying, “Please don’t have the sirens going full blast at 4:30 a.m! My Chestnut Hill neighbors will kill me!!!”

I stepped outside, looked up the street, and here it came, the big red hunkering fire truck, lights flashing, coming to the rescue! My prayer was answered; they weren’t using the horns. I walked into the street, flagged them over, confirmed that my house was the one and went back inside while they backed the truck up. AT THAT EXACT MOMENT THE HIGH, SHARP, EAR-SPLITTING SHRILL OF MY SMOKE ALARM STOPPED!! I couldn’t believe it; it stopped before one firefighter’s boot hit my porch. Can you feel my embarrassment, frustration and overall stupefied emotions?

In they marched, three brave civil servants dressed from hats to boots (one carrying an axe) into a suddenly-quiet, peaceful home. The lengths I went to while explaining what had happened must have been construed as the ramblings of a lunatic. Luckily my dining room was scattered with the wreckage of hardware, chairs and the disconnected fire alarms sitting on my table from the previous incident. I asked “How could this possibly have happened?” I pointed to the “thing” and asked, “Is that a fire detector?” The answer: “It looks to be a hard-wired alarm. You need an electrician!” I couldn’t believe it. “What set it off?” No answer.

I was mortified. Chestnut Hill’s Fire Station, which is ONE block away from my house , came out with a crew of men and a truck at 4:30 a.m. To a dud call. As I stood in my doorway with Henri (whose tail was tucked between his legs) waving and smiling goodbye, I felt … grateful. (The firefighters who came to my house were Lt. Tracy Peterson, Rick Madison, Charles Winrow and S. Stevens.)

Most of us have heard the postman’s oath: “Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night … ” In other words, you’ll get your mail, no matter what. I wondered what a firefighter’s oath is so I looked it up: I do solemnly swear to do my duty as a firefighter for the City of Philadelphia to the best of my ability; to serve my commanding officers with respect and dignity; to serve the citizens of the City of Philadelphia with compassion, courage and integrity … ”

“Compassion, courage and integrity” is exactly how these men treated me, even though I was a false alarm.