Combating the silent killer: Firefighters discuss carbon monoxide detectors, regulations


Children swim Tuesday in the pool at the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA. Along the walls are various lights, cameras and carbon monoxide detectors. (Tony Wittkowski / HP staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

As children swam laps in the pool Tuesday in the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA, there is safety fixture fastened to the aquatic room’s northern wall.

Between a flat-screen television in the corner and a surveillance camera toward the middle of the wall, is a carbon monoxide detector.

With the recent carbon monoxide poisoning incident in mind, the Niles Fire Department is hoping residents and business owners will take an extra precaution in keeping everyone safe – like at both YMCAs in Berrien County.

The precaution, in most cases, costs $20.

Police and firefighters across Southwest Michigan universally agree on not only providing smoke detectors, but carbon monoxide detectors in homes and specific businesses.

“In the city of Niles, smoke detectors are required,” Niles Fire Department Capt. Don Wise said in a phone interview. “The code states a working detector must be in each bedroom and on each level (of the home). The same cannot be said for carbon monoxide detectors.”

On Saturday, a ventilation problem with the heater that keeps the Niles Quality Inn and Suites’ pool warm caused a carbon monoxide leak that sent a dozen people to the hospital and killed 13-year-old Bryan Watts.

In Niles, the fire department regularly inspects potential fire hazards, but not mechanical problems like what caused the pool’s heater to leak CO into the enclosed room.

The state building code requires structures that were built after 2009 to install carbon monoxide detectors near fuel-burning devices like furnaces, water heaters and other equipment that could malfunction and emit the deadly gas. Unfortunately, the building code doesn’t include structures built before 2009.

Spotting the signs

By definition, carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas.

This silent killer exhibits symptoms like that of the flu. Wise said sometimes the only way to know the difference is to have a CO detector on hand.

“I think anyone with fuel-burning equipment should have a CO detector,” Wise said. “A furnace’s heat exchanger could get a crack in it and dump CO into a home or business. Whenever we have a tragedy like this, the only thing worse is having it happen again when a $20 detector would prevent that.”

Watervliet Fire Chief Dan Jones said there’s a threshold that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has for certain businesses like car repair shops or underground parking garages.

The concentration of carbon monoxide is measured in parts per million. The baseline threshold for a minimum exposure is at 35 parts per million, Jones said.

Any more exposure leads to more severe effects. At 200 parts per million, the subject gets a slight headache and nausea after two hours.

After 800 parts per million, a convulsion will occur within 45 minutes, unconsciousness or death comes in two to three hours. At 1,600 parts per million, Jones said death will come within an hour.

“Obviously, you don’t want any CO whatsoever. The readings you want in your home or business is zero,” Jones said. “Just like with smoke detectors, we encourage people to use CO detectors. We encourage them because CO detectors are not required in the ordinance.”

Being prepared

Jen Hobson, director of administration for the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA, said after the renovation to its building on Hollywood Road, they added more than 30 smoke detectors that also detect carbon monoxide.

In addition to the one in the pool area, Hobson said there are also ones in the basement and near the child care facilities.

“We have them throughout the building,” she said. “They follow the same protocol at the Niles Y. We also hold by-yearly battery checks and have regular inspections for licensing protocol.”

But what happens when residents are unsure whether a business has a CO detector?

“We’ve had some people ask about going to hotels and knowing if they have a detector,” Wise said. “Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves. A battery-operated detector is the best option. You can plug it in when you get there.”

This is the practice Wise follows when he stays at any hotel or goes camping and uses propane.

“I have CO detectors in my home and at work. I know I have one in my house for natural gas as well,” Wise said. When asked if he sees as many of these CO detectors in public, the answer is not as simple. “I probably see more homes that don’t have them. We have a free smoke detector program for owner-occupied homes, but we don’t offer CO detectors. People have to buy them on their own.”

Jones said there are certain commercial buildings in Watervliet they inspect on an annual basis. This includes the Surfari Joe’s Indoor Wilderness Waterpark at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Watervliet.

He said hotels and motels are the type of commercial buildings that should have CO detectors because it is where people would sleep or spend the night.

However, his rule of thumb doesn’t apply to restaurants.

“It doesn’t take me three hours to eat,” he said. “Having a CO detector takes the guesswork out of it. It doesn’t take very many breaths of carbon monoxide and you will be debilitated.”

In most cases, CO doesn’t get into a high enough concentration for people not to recognize it, Jones said.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 5, 2017)


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