Column: The embarrassing side of calling 911


So this is going to sound absurd.

But a few weeks ago, I maybe actually kind of hoped my house was on fire.

Hear me out. Because I’m the one who dialed 911, and hitting the panic button brings two risks: first that there actually is an emergency; second (and potentially worse, at least for the ego) that you’re overreacting like a parent who won’t let his teenager use a butter knife.

The kids and I smelled something burning one Tuesday morning in October, and since the odor didn’t vanish like a fart in the breeze, we freaked.

Mostly screaming. Sniffing, too. Since we knew it wasn’t a candle or the furnace or the bagels, we turned into beagles. Light switches. Bed sheets. Shower curtains. Teddy bears. Air vents. Basement. Attic. Carpet. Underarms.

We sniffed them all.


I promised the kids I would take them to school — Good God, kids, hurry up and get in the car already before this place explodes — pray a few Our Fathers, speed back and hope like heck that when I opened the front door, Mother Nature didn’t go all “Backdraft” on me.

Then, if the place wasn’t charred, I’d call the fire department.

I suspected the fire department did not offer a “low-key emergency” option. Press 1 if you are almost certainly irrationally worrisome. Asking them to slow their roll is akin to asking a 747 to land quietly. I just knew calling 911 would result in something like four trucks, 29 firefighters and 327 flashing lights electrifying the pre-dawn darkness in a red-and-blue flicker fest that would make Clark W. Griswold jealous.

I seek attention about like a hermit crab, so breaking urgent news to a dispatcher at 7:22 a.m. was not the kind of adrenaline rush I was hoping for. When the lady on the receiving end asked, “What is your emergency?” I suppressed the hysteria and tried my best to act as if I had eaten a trough of muscle relaxants.

“Oh, just smelled something that might be burning. No big deal, really. But better safe than sorry, I suppose. Such a nice morning, don’t you think. Crisp. Have any plans for breakfast?”

“Do you see smoke, sir?”

“No. No smoke. Just smells like a wood-burning stove. My grandparents had one of those. Takes me back to my childhood.”

“Sir, do you see flames?”

“None of those, either. Just the sweet smell of maybe an electric motor burning. Or roasting marshmallows. Safe, not sorry. So I called. Maybe somebody can check. I’m sure it’s nothing. I said marshmallows, didn’t I? S’mores sound good.”

She promised to send help, and boy did it arrive. Enough force that my daughter heard sirens passing by her school and began crying. Neighbors called. Friends texted. We made the scanner! A fleet of volunteers’ pickup trucks, then ladder trucks and the chief and his assistant and guys on the department I know and they all inspected my house and I felt weird about the underwear on the floor and the empty tub of cookie dough on the coffee table and the fact that there were feminine hygiene products on a bookshelf.

Some host I am.

Worse yet, if the smell was from something a man should know about, I would not qualify to solve the riddle. Raised mostly by my mother, I am 30 percent woman. I reserve mechanical aptitude for others — that’s what fathers-in-law are for — and while I could tell the chief where the furnace was located, I could not have deconstructed the unit to find a flaw.

So they paced and they peered.

They used a thermal-imaging camera and circled the ceiling fan in my youngest daughter’s bedroom like seagulls over a loaf of bread. They determined something near a light on the fan had overheated.

Nothing major. No smoke. No flames.

“See?” one of the firemen said. “You’re not crazy.”

Maybe next time.

Jason Recker is the news editor at The Herald. He ate the cookie dough. His email is

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