Carbon Monoxide? A Lesson In Detection For The First Responder

Sometimes, things are not as they appear!

Several years ago, a small local fire department responded to a private residence (single story ranch) for a carbon monoxide (CO) alarm. It was late fall-early winter in New England, south of Boston. A local plumber met the fire department and advised them that he was in the process of switching the house over from electric heat to propane. As per the Massachusetts code, he is required to install a hardwired CO monitor near the furnace.

The plumber had completed the furnace installation, but NO propane was attached or delivered to the house. Actually, he installed the CO monitor two days earlier, which went into alarm hours later. When he arrived and met with the homeowner she advised him of the alarm which he figured was faulty and replaced it.

By the time the fire department arrived, the CO detector had a reading of 600 ppm at the door. Even upon ventilating the structure, they couldn’t get the reading lower than 300 ppm, which resulted in them requesting help from the local regional hazmat team

At the time, I was assigned to a shift but off duty. The activation of a CO alarm in a private residence seemed like an easy run, (a quick couple of hours of overtime). Upon arrival, I met with the local IC and he confirmed previous results. My immediate thought was a poor reading by a faulty CO detector. We then laid three 4 gas meters of different makers which all had the same CO limit at 300 ppm: H2S, O2 and LEL had no issues.

In seeking a source for the CO, we went through the entire house: nothing that produced CO, no garage, no fireplace, no recent cooking, and the entire house used electric. The cellar was immaculate and for the most part empty. We contacted the local gas company which detected similar readings and even picked up CO from the ground outside. We also contacted the communities’ health official to see if they were aware of similar incidents in town; they could provide no answers.

It became one of those incidents where you have to take a step back and think a bit.

A few thoughts came to mind:

  • False positive? If it wasn’t CO, what was it?
  • What would cause CO to enter the house as well as in and around the home?
  • Was there underground organic material breaking down causing it to emit CO? (There aren’t any underground coal fires here in Massachusetts)

Finally it dawned on us that we didn’t know if the occupant was OK!

As a Fire Fighter Paramedic, they always tell you to treat the patient first so we called EMS and asked them to tell us if their cardiac monitor could detect CO in the owner: it read zero. The homeowner was clear.

As the early evening approached, we were running out of ideas. I had sat through many training sessions with the engineer that designed the detection device in the home, and I remembered him saying, “If you have a problem call me”. So that’s what we decided to do.

In describing the incident to the engineer, he suggested testing for CO by using a different technology. So we decided to use Draeger tubes and drew samples from several areas in and around the house; the results revealed little or no color change on the tubes.

We collected several samples for transport with teglar bags. Under our state statute, which authorizes our response, there were no immediate life hazards and the incident was turned over to local state environmental agencies.

They could not identify what was entering the house.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t get tunnel vision. I went into this figuring a quick in and out.
  • With my tunnel vision, simple things like the homeowner having no symptoms should have made a difference to us MUCH sooner.
  • Reaching out to subject matter experts works!
    Using different technology such as the 4 gas AND a Draeger tube to confirm findings

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