Diagram of where to put smoke alarms. The top ...

Diagram of where to put smoke alarms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I told my father that we had been burned out of our apartment by a fire next door.

It was the 1970s.

When the fire in my apartment building started in our next door neighbor’s apartment, there were no smoke alarms yet.

A downstairs neighbor, who couldn’t sleep, noticed the smoke coming out of our next door neighbor’s door and, fearing we wouldn’t hear her bang on our front door in the middle of the night, called us to alert us to get out.

Firemen, from a fire station less than a block away, banged on every door to clear the building.

We were OK, but two of our neighbors in the apartment where the fire started died of smoke inhalation in the fire.

“They must have been drinking,” my father remarked.

Not a judgmental man, he surprised me with this opinion.

“I don’t know. Someone fell asleep on the couch with a cigarette in their hand and caught the couch on fire,” I reported.

Later, we were to find out that one woman died on the couch, where the fire had started.

Another got lost when she woke up amidst smoke and walked into a closet.

Apparently, she was so disoriented she couldn’t find her way out of the closet.

They found her there.

A third adult in the apartment jumped off the second-floor balcony and, though he was not burned, he broke an ankle.

But, my Dad’s remark about drinking intrigued me.

It turns out, he was not being judgmental, just reflecting the facts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “alcohol contributes to an estimated 40% of residential fire deaths.”

Most “die from smoke or toxic gases, not from burns.”

A 2007 study in Australia, “Smoke Alarm Notification of Sleeping People,” confirmed what my father had told me nearly 30 years before, the more you drink, the less likely you’ll wake up in a fire.

This study looked at whether a smoke alarm would wake you if you’d been drinking.

Using young adults in their study, so hearing was not an issue, they compared those who had not been drinking with those with a measurable blood alcohol content, or concentration (BAC) and found:

  • When sober, 5% slept through a smoke alarm ringing at 90 dBA
  • With 0.05 Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC), 36% slept through 90 dBA
  • With 0.08 BAC, 42% slept through 90 dBA.

Virginia Tech reports the level of alcohol needed to reach these BACs.

For a 160-pound man, two drinks in an hour will give him a BAC of 0.05. Three drinks will give him a BAC of 0.07 and four drinks 0.08.

For a 140-pound woman, two drinks will give her a BAC of .07 and three a BAC of .10, above the legal limit in Virginia for driving.

A drink is defined as about an ounce and a half of alcohol or distilled spirits, or one shot, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a 12-ounce beer.

Time is a factor. You can subtract 0.01% for each 40 minutes of drinking.

At 0.05, a driver is considered significantly impaired.

At 0.08, they are subject to a DUI (driving under the influence) charge in Virginia, as in all states.

Some states also have zero tolerance BAC levels and enhanced penalty BAC levels.

Virginia is among these with a zero tolerance for drivers under 21 and an enhanced penalty for a BAC of 0.15 or above, when drivers have been shown to be 300 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.

The test was conducted with smoke alarms set at 90 decibels, the level of sound you’d hear from a train whistle at 500 feet or a diesel truck 30 feet away.

Normal conversation is 60-65 decibels.

But, my father was telling me something.

With two drinks, you are seven times less likely to rouse from sleep in an emergency.

With three drinks, eight times less likely.

I never knew if my neighbors had been drinking, but that casual remark was certainly food for thought.

Sometimes Dads can be pretty smart.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers



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