breathe easy

Breathing Easy

Enhancing life safety through installation of CO detectors proves worthwhile time and again

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 good judgment.

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 single-story building.

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 worked flawlessly.

"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 of structures.

  • 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 fire department.

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 alarm situations.

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 sirens).

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 reaction time.

"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.

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