CO poisonings in two states may lead to expanded detector requirements

Ensuring safety with CO detectors need not be costly, fire alarm companies say
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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

YARMOUTH, Maine—Calls to expand mandates for carbon monoxide detectors in commercial buildings in New York and Maine have resulted from recent cases in those states of poisonings by the deadly gas—one of them fatal.

Fire alarm companies in both states told Security Systems News they support expansion of state CO laws
and gave suggestions on cost effective ways businesses could add detectors.

On Feb. 22 in a Long Island, N.Y. mall, 26 people were sickened at a Legal Sea Foods restaurant and the 55-year-old restaurant manager died after being poisoned by the odorless, invisible gas. The cause was a leaky flue pipe in the water heater, according to CNN.

Just a day later, 21 people suffered carbon monoxide poisoning at a resort in Ogunquit, Maine. Fire Chief Mark O’Brien told the Portland Press Herald newspaper that the cause of the leak was a faulty ventilation pipe. He said tests at the InnSeason Resorts–The Falls at Ogunquit detected high levels of CO. “We could potentially have had 21 deaths here,” O’Brien told the paper.

A 2012 Maine law requires any new single-family dwelling, hotel, motel, inn, bed and breakfast, fraternity or sorority house, and dormitory to have CO detectors installed, the paper said. But the law has an exemption for homes or businesses that were constructed before Aug. 1, 2012, unless the building since then has been restored or converted to those uses. The resort in Ogunquit, built more than 20 years ago, wasn’t required to have CO detectors under the law, the paper reported.

The incident, in which seven of the inn’s guests were so sick they had to be hospitalized, has resulted in calls in Maine to expand the law to cover buildings that currently are exempted. However, the hospitality industry has raised concerns about the cost of retrofitting hotel rooms, according to the paper.

Rich Brobst Jr., president of the Maine Burglar & Fire Alarm Association and a NICET IV-level master electrician with Falmouth, Maine-based Protection Professionals, told SSN he supports expanding the law, but in a way “that makes sense” and is more cost effective.

“Don't bother putting CO detection everywhere in the building, put it where it’s going to be an issue [near a combustion device],” Brobst advised.

He said he’d like to see Maine mandate the devices be in places like furnace rooms instead of bedrooms or hallways outside of bedrooms.

“If you have a carbon monoxide issue in the furnace room, it’s not going to affect anybody in the building until it permeates into one of the apartments,” he said. It’s better to have a detector located where it will sound as soon as the gas is emitted from a combustion source.

And professional monitoring of CO devices is also vital, Brobst said. He said that if a detector goes off in a furnace room, typically “a facility’s manager would go check out the sound, but there’s nothing that individual can do and if they go into this room that’s toxic, they may end up on the floor.”

But a central station can call the fire department, which has the equipment to detect high levels of carbon monoxide and the knowledge of how to deal with it.

In the Long Island mall CO incident, firefighters found the restaurant manager, Steven Nelson, unconscious in the basement of the restaurant, CNN reported.

The restaurant didn’t have a CO detector because state law only requires them in commercial establishments where people sleep, according to CNN. There are now calls in the state to expand the law to cover other types of businesses.

Bob Williams, president of Long Island-based Briscoe Protective Systems, told SSN in an email interview, “It’s a shame to think that even a $20 battery-operated CO detector could have alerted the manager of the impending danger before it became a toxic level.”

He added, “I am definitely in favor of mandating the requirement s for these detectors in commercial occupancies, but cost is always a deterrent factor especially with existing commercial fire alarms systems that need to retrofitted to accept these detectors.”

Williams advised, “At a minimum, hardwired AC-powered CO detectors with battery backup should be required to be installed in all existing commercial buildings, and new or significantly renovated buildings should have interconnected system detectors.”