Enhancing life safety through installation of CO detectors proves worthwhile time and again
- By Jackie Lorenty
- May 01, 2010
No one is immune to the dangers of carbon monoxide gas. It can be present in
any structure in which mechanical equipment produces exhaust while burning
fuel. The gas can be emitted by sources ranging from furnaces and water
heaters to generators and other motorized devices. Because it is colorless and
odorless, it often goes unnoticed until occupants become ill. CO is harmful
because when inhaled, it replaces the oxygen in the bloodstream that the body
requires to function properly.
As CO education spreads, more commercial building and multi-family housing
owners are installing CO detectors, which can alert tenants before they sense any
symptoms of poisoning. This movement is further bolstered by the fact that in some
cases, CO detector installation is required by law. But it is up to building owners and
managers to comply or face the consequences if they choose to ignore legislation or
CO detection technology has significantly improved since the first generation of
stand-alone devices. System-connected, monitored CO detectors offer the highest
level of protection because they can automatically alert authorities—a critical feature
when occupants are asleep or already ill due to CO exposure.
Zeh Elementary School
CO detector successes have protected countless people from illness and death. Such
was the case at Marion E. Zeh Elementary School in Northborough, Mass., in October
2008. A few hours into an otherwise average school day, a CO detector alarm sounded
in the school's cafeteria.
School officials reacted instantly by calling the local fire department, which directed
them to pull the fire alarms and evacuate the more than 300 students and staff from the
Fire crews arrived on the scene and entered the school with gas meters. As they walked
toward the cafeteria area, the meters read 15 parts per million of CO, then 30 ppm. According
to Northborough Fire Chief and Emergency Preparedness Coordinator David Durgin, by the
time crews reached a boiler room near the cafeteria prep area, meters read 100 ppm.
"In all my 32 years in firefighting, I have never seen 100 ppm other than in actual fire
conditions," Durgin said. "The kids would have been brought into this area for lunch. With CO
being a silent, odorless killer, we had the potential for a mass casualty incident because of
long-term exposure to CO."
A custodian who had been in the high CO concentration area was treated for a headache
and released from a local hospital. According to the Centers for Disease Control, headache is
a common CO poisoning symptom, along with dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest
pain and confusion. Severe CO poisoning leads to loss of consciousness and possibly death,
which can occur within minutes of exposure to extremely high levels.
The CO leak was caused by the school's gas-powered heating boiler. Durgin said the boiler
was not ventilating properly because a pivoting air intake valve had rusted shut. As a result of
the alarm, the boiler was turned off, the school was ventilated, and students and staff were
allowed back in by lunchtime.
Dr. Charles Gobron, superintendent of the Northborough and Southboroug Public School
District, explained that along with the CO detector, the school's crisis management plan
"The staff created a calm atmosphere," Gobron said.
"The students looked at it like a lengthy recess."
Additional Positive CO Outcomes
Along with the Zeh Elementary School incident, other
potential CO tragedies have been averted throughout
the United States. The following are events that occurred
at commercial buildings and residential structures in
which CO detectors made a difference in the outcome of
CO leaks. These situations also provide a broader view
of how the dangers of CO can be present in a variety
- In Watertown, Mass., employees of the town's public
works department requested a CO detector be installed
in the headquarters building where they worked. Three
weeks after installation, the detector's alarm went off
and the building was evacuated. CO was leaking from
a burner in the basement and filtering throughout the
structure. The problem was corrected and after further
monitoring, employees were permitted into the headquarters
the next day.
- Firefighters were called to a CO alarm at a four-story
structure consisting of apartments and retail space in
State College, Pa., home of Penn State University. Upon
arrival, firefighters found CO present at dangerous levels
on every floor. A few people were treated for minor
CO poisoning symptoms, and the structure was evacuated.
Investigators attributed the CO build-up to a van
that was left with its engine running for several hours
at an adjacent loading dock. Occupants were allowed
to return after each apartment was ventilated.
- Seven people were inside a fraternity house at Roanoke
College in Salem, Va., when a CO detector sounded in the
middle of the night. Though none of them felt ill, occupants
called campus safety officials, who evacuated the
house and investigated the cause. Officials determined CO
was building in the house due to a congested flue pipe
that was restricting proper ventilation. Campus officials
praised the occupants for heeding the alarm because a
few months prior, a man died from CO poisoning inside a
dorm on the same campus.
- A CO detector went off in a basement apartment within
a Boston building that houses local university students.
Firefighters evacuated the building of about 200 residents,
a few of whom were taken to a hospital for nausea. Investigators
found dangerously high levels of CO within the
building and discovered the leak originated from a heating
system oil burner with faulty venting.
- At the first U.S. military service to install CO detectors in
all housing and high-risk areas, the Navy has reported
no deaths related to carbon monoxide in Navy facilities.
In fact, CO detectors have likely saved several lives.
For example, a Texas Naval family avoided serious injury
when their CO detector alarmed after a defective
heating system resulted in dangerous CO levels accumulating
in the home. In another instance, a California
Naval family heard their CO alarm go off and opened
all their windows to vent the house. The local gas company
found that problems with the house's furnace led
to dangerous levels of CO build-up in the house. The gas company concluded that without
the early warning of CO detection, gas
build-up would likely have killed the
family in their sleep.
These examples clearly show that CO detection
can greatly reduce injury and death
from accidental CO exposures. According to
the CDC, there are roughly 500 accidental,
non-fire CO poisoning deaths each year.
Many of these could likely be avoided with
the installation of CO detection.
Along with smoke alarms and other fire
detectors, a CO detector is one of the most
important safety items in a building. Without
the aid of a detector, it is virtually impossible to
detect the presence of dangerous CO levels.
It is certain that CO poisoning can kill
quickly, but a recent study (by the Journal of
American Medical Association, 2006;295:398-
402, Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation)
shows that CO poisoning subsequently increases
the risk of heart problems that can
lead to premature death. The only safe way to
know if dangerous CO levels are present is to
install CO detectors on every level of a building
and in sleeping areas.
Responding to the CO Call
Unsafe conditions involving CO may sometimes
be difficult to evaluate by the responding
When CO detectors became available,
people generally believed that the response
protocol would be the same as for smoke
alarms. However, as more municipalities enacted
legislation requiring the installation of
CO detectors, it became evident that smoke
alarm protocols were not effective in CO
Response to CO alarms depends on information
received in the initial dispatch
message, and/or on updates received from
other responding agencies, such as a central
station monitoring company.
1. Carbon monoxide detector activated
where occupant(s) are asleep or complain
of flu-like symptoms: Emergency
response is indicated (i.e., immediate
action is taken to reach the scene of exposure
as quickly as possible).
2. Carbon monoxide detector activated
where occupant(s) experience no medical
symptoms of CO poisoning (flu-like
symptoms, including shortness of breath,
nausea, headache, dizziness and lightheadedness):
Routine response is indicated
(i.e., an expedient response without
Many victims are poisoned by CO while
asleep, unaware of the elevated CO levels to
which they're being exposed.
"Because it is dangerous by nature,
CO can go undetected," said Guy Trayling,
assistant marshal of the Lake Zurich, Ill., fire
department. "When people hear the alarm,
they know enough to evacuate the building.
The greatest risk factor is when people are
asleep and unable to respond quickly."
It is possible that building occupants
would not be experiencing symptoms
when an alarm sounds. That does not mean
dangerous CO levels are not present. The
alarm is supposed to activate before occupants
feel sick, which provides proper
"The fire department is there to accurately
measure the CO levels and pinpoint
where the CO [leak] is coming from," Trayling
said. "At that point, the source can be shut
down and a repair can be called in."
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Security Today.