It’s that time of the year again, furnaces in full force, fire places in use and gas appliances being used more so now than outdoor grills. With this season change the higher expectation of carbon monoxide alarms begin to rise. Why is this a concern? Carbon Monoxide or CO, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and flammable gas with it being the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America.
CO, a byproduct of incomplete combustion of fuel sources such as natural gas, wood, propane and coal to name a few, can be found in many areas of indoor and outdoor living areas such as kitchens, laundry rooms, garages and wood burning stoves and fireplaces. Because of this CO can be generated in 3 ways; through a solid, liquid and a gas.
Examples of forms:
Liquid: Oil, propane, gasoline
Gas: Natural gas
Further, CO could also be “man made” through motor vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke and cooking appliances yet all use some type of fuel source and generated through a solid, liquid or gas.
Annually, several hundred thousand people are exposed to CO poisoning with 20-40% of survivors suffering immediate or delayed neuropsychological deficits and other health damage. One of these is Hypoxic Stress, which is the reduction of oxygen-carrying capacity of blood leading to inadequate oxygenation of cells, tissues and organs. Our brains are susceptible to hypoxia although subtle effects of CO could prevent us from being aware.
Earlier, we mentioned cigarette smoke being a man made cause of CO. Well, in a non-smoker the COHb levels in the blood is between 0.4% and 1.4%. In smokers who smoke one pack per day have up to 5% COHb in their blood. Due to this, cognitive ability in longer term smokers has been known to decrease.
Symptoms of CO
Loss of consciousnesses
Let’s now discuss CO Emergencies
Upon arrival, the first arriving officer should ask the following to the occupants prior to investigating the dwelling:
Is anyone experiencing any symptoms?
What appliances were being used prior to the alarm?
If no appliances that would trigger a CO alarm were used or the occupants can’t retrace their steps, here are a few options:
Try and recreate the situation from what the occupants have done over the last 6-10 hours because it could be a slow leak.
Observe the occupants for signs of CO poisoning and ensure they are in fresh air while the scene is being investigated.
Check the fireplace, the furnace intake, draft hood, water heater and gas-fed furnace.
Ensure gas flames are blue and not yellow or orange, this is a sign of CO.
Laptops or tablets charging. This is rare but could happen.
Check the batteries
If the source is still unfound, request the local gas and utility company to the scene. Also, if operating in a multi-resident occupancy, check adoring apartments and buildings. Depending on your area, think outside of the box. Does this occupancy have a shared chimney? Is it a duplex? Shotgun house or an odd renovation style? This all could be indicators for unfound CO due to its building construction.
Lastly, ensure alarms are in their proper locations in the occupancy and always don your SCBA with readings at or exceeding 9 ppm.
Until next time; work hard, stay safe & live inspired.
About the Author
NICHOLAS J. HIGGINS is a firefighter with 17 years in the fire service in Piscataway, NJ, a NJ State certified level 2 fire instructor and a State of New Jersey Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation. A martial arts practitioner and former collegiate athlete in baseball, Nick is also a National Exercise & Sports Trainer Association Battle Ropes Instructor, Functional Fitness Instructor and Nutrition Coach. He holds a B.S. in Accounting from Kean University and is the founder/contributor of the Firehouse Tribune website. Nick has spoken at the 2017 & 2018 Firehouse Expo in Nashville, TN as well as at numerous fire departments within NJ.