Janet Combs

Janet Combs

Fresh broccoli steaming on the stovetop gives off a pretty pungent odor. Burning broccoli on the stovetop gives off a far more dramatic, acrid stink — and one that sticks around for a couple of months.

This is, apparently, how I tested the smoke detectors in my last home. I don’t recall what distracted me from my vegetable preparation — only that the smoke alarm nearest my kitchen went off. I remember dashing to the stove to grab the burning pan with potholders and rushing outside onto my back deck, setting the smoldering red-hot pot base on the handrail and branding it with a neat semicircle. The pot was irrevocably charred; I had to throw it out.

Our fixer-upper has four hard-wired smoke detectors from the 1990s, and all have faded to a most unbecoming orangish-yellow. Their looks are the least of their issues, however, as I discovered when broiling a couple of steaks indoors a few months ago. They failed the “Broccoli Incident” test — not a one was triggered, and I had bona fide flames shooting out of my oven from a grease fire!

Naturally, you readers are wondering, when will I be invited to dinner at Janet’s? She seems such a meticulous chef.

Now, you may safely accept any forthcoming invitation, from a home-fire perspective if not a culinary one. Just this weekend we installed four new smoke detectors that can communicate with each other over our WiFi network — and best of all, we can access their status on our telephones. If I ever put something on the stove and stupidly head out to run errands, my phone will alert me of the smoke danger in time for me to get home or get help. The detectors communicate silently with each other, and speak aloud to let you know if there’s a smoke or carbon monoxide situation detected.

They are succinct and polite, avoiding the use of phrases like, “You idiot, you left broccoli on the stovetop with no water in the pan.” They also shine a handy, motion-detected nightlight down on you when you walk by them in the pitch darkness.

Of course, my husband pointed out that if our network went down, these high-tech smoke- and carbon monoxide detectors would be no better than the significantly less expensive ones that do not let you check them from your telephone. But I like the fact that these new monitors speak a warning out loud to you before sounding the alarm. And they are bilingual, or at least the one outside our master bedroom is.

This is because, during our first installation, the unit instructed us to “press once for English” on its face-plate button, and we pressed twice.

I was on the ladder, and every time I inadvertently hit the button while attempting to screw the unit onto its base plate mounted to the ceiling, a pleasant Spanish woman said something of vital importance to me. Did I ever mention that I spent an entire academic year in college in France? This culturally enlightening experience decades ago did not assist me one bit in comprehending the essence of her messages.

Once, though, I discerned her counting backwards from 10, and this caused me to panic and hit the button on purpose to reset it. Counting backwards is never a good thing — whether your parent is threatening you with a time-out or your finger is on the trigger of a nuclear reactor. Later, when we installed the remaining detectors and selected English, I learned the countdown was for a system-wide test which would have produced an ear-splitting alarm.

Once all four detectors were installed, we were able to change the unit outside our bedroom to English-speaking, using our phone. A crisis situation is not the best in which to learn a second language. However, just in case, I have memorized the following: “el brócoli está ardiendo.”

Broccoli is burning.

Janet Combs is a freelance writer living in Georgetown County. Her column is published regularly in the Georgetown Times. Contact her at https://janetfrickecombs.wordpress.com.