How Documentation Saved Me

Before I went on a five-day business trip to the annual RIMS meeting in Philadelphia this past April, my wife, Diane, asked me to check the batteries in the smoke detectors. She didn’t want one to “chirp” that its battery was low while I was out of town.

We have learned that these things don’t let you know they are low on battery power unless you are sound asleep — usually at about 2:00 in the morning. (I took a small sample and 100 percent of the two people I asked agreed.)

When the 9-volt backup battery is low, our smoke detectors give an annoying chirp that can awaken even the soundest sleeper; and, because they are wired into the house, they won’t quit until you replace the battery. They all chirp at the same pitch, so I must go around to every one of the seven detectors until I can guess which has the low battery. Since the alarm is supposed to awaken you in the event of a fire, I guess it thinks that the same volume is appropriate to let you know the battery is low. I am convinced it is a ploy to make

sure you replace the batteries in all the detectors, since it’s really hard to tell which one has the low battery.

There is a second rule of smoke detector batteries: If the home has more than one detector, the smoke detector that is the hardest to reach has the honor, really the obligation, to have its battery fail first. In our case, it is the one on the main floor at the top of the stairs to the basement. As if the 9-foot ceilings aren’t enough of a problem for this “vertically challenged” author, as you approach, the gaping hole of the descending staircase looms like a dragon’s open jaws, complete with teeth (steps) willing to gulp me down in the event I fall off the ladder that I must use to reach that device. I can’t close the dragon’s mouth as the door is at the bottom of the stairs.

On the night before I was to come home from my business trip, I got a call at about 11:00 in the evening from my very frustrated wife. One of the smoke detectors didn’t understand the rules and was prematurely chirping at a time some mortals are still awake. I listened over the phone while she not-so-patiently stood under each detector with her cell phone, both of us trying to figure out which was the one that was chirping. It was easier for me to distinguish the volume of the chirping on my end of the call than it was for Diane. I think it must have something to do with the sensitivity of the mic in her cell phone. We identified the offending detector and, true to the rules, it was the one at the top of the basement steps.

No way was she going to drag the ladder upstairs, climb up on it, and change the battery while she was home alone. (She wouldn’t do it with a house full of people, but that’s another issue. Climbing ladders and changing batteries is clearly a man’s job in our home, and I didn’t want her to try for the first time then.)

Now I was in big trouble. The chirping sound was enough to keep Diane awake all night and was highly annoying. And, her annoyance at the sound was quickly becoming annoyance at me for not checking the batteries in the smoke detectors.

Those of you who have done “booth duty” at a convention know it is tiring. I was ready for a good home-cooked meal (Diane is an excellent chef) and a good night’s sleep in my own bed — I don’t sleep well in hotel rooms. Now it looked like I’d get a cold can of beans for a meal, an even colder shoulder for a reception, and might be sleeping on the couch, another place I don’t sleep well.

The next day she called our neighbor, Tim, and he came over, got on a ladder, and changed the battery in the offending device. Diane said it was as if she had quit banging her head against a brick wall. Relief at last. (Thanks, Tim!)

Now I’ll let you in on how my documentation saved me from sleeping on the couch — or in the backyard, for that matter.

When I change the battery in the smoke detectors, I write the date on the battery in a felt-tipped pen. Before I left for my trip, I had checked an easy-to-reach detector and found the battery was dated October 2016. Since the trip was in April, it meant the battery had been installed about six months earlier and certainly should have still been good (provided I had replaced them all at the same time, which I usually do.)

Upon descending the ladder, Tim read the date on the battery to her, “October 2016.” When she texted the date to me at the airport. I breathed a sigh of relief — I had been saved by my documentation.

It wasn’t enough that I had done what was asked of me, which was to verify that the batteries in the smoke detectors had been replaced within a reasonable time. I needed to prove it, and the date of installation written on the battery was my evidence. Even better was the fact that an “independent observer,” my neighbor, was the one to read the date to Diane. Diane’s anger was now diverted from me to the battery company (“I’ll never buy that brand of batteries again.”)  My documentation enabled me to save face and the battery company to lose a customer. I had the evidence I needed to prove I had done my job.

I sometimes grouse about documenting my work — the work is done and is correct, so what’s the use of documentation? The smoke detector battery incident was a powerful and personal reminder of why documentation is important. I should have kept that battery and put it on my desk to remind me of how documentation once saved me from a lot of grief.

You never know when proper documentation will save you from a lot of trouble — or from sleeping on the couch.

P.S. When was the last time you changed the batteries in your smoke detector?