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Recognizing Carbon Monoxide Emergencies - Dispatch Concerns & Responder Detection

Author: James Strohecker, RAE Systems

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-10-16
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In Arvada, Colorado, a 9-1-1 call was received from someone who reported that a family member was not feeling well. The caller was not with the family member, but the call went through and Arvada Fire’s EMS responders were dispatched. Fortunately for all involved, Arvada responders were prepared for what awaited them when they arrived at the home.

They had portable carbon monoxide (CO) monitors hooked onto their carry-along kit bags, and the units sounded an alarm alerting crew members to high levels of CO just inside the front door. Acting on the alarm, they immediately checked the residents for signs of CO poisoning. As expected, all three adults in the home were showing signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. They were immediately transported to an area hospital for treatment.

The responders and their detectors were responsible for saving the lives of the residents as well as their own lives; those toxic gases are difficult to detect reliably. The dwelling did not have CO monitors installed.

For dispatchers, there’s an important lesson to be learned.  It’s not only the citizens whose life may be endangered when the possibility of CO is present.  The very responders they dispatch in could be at risk without proper detection. 


The Value of Early Warning

The Arvada Fire Protection District serves some 115,000 citizens in Arvada, which is located within the Denver metropolitan area. The district maintains eight active stations throughout 41 square miles and employs 118 full- and part-time paid personnel and 45 volunteers. Not long before this incident, the department outfitted first responders with ToxiRAE 3 CO detectors from RAE systems.

There’s more to the story. For the first responders, this was the second incident inside a two-week period where the carbon monoxide detectors sounded an early warning.

“On the second call, the engine got on scene first and noticed the patients, which sent up a red flag and sent the crew back to the truck for their larger four-gas meter, since they did not have a ToxiRAE 3 on their EMS kit,” explained Scott Pribble, public information officer for the Arvada District. “The medics arrived at that time, and both monitors activated before they got inside the front door.”

Carbon monoxide, sometime referred to as “the silent killer,” is found in many different settings. It results from the incomplete combustion of any type of organic matter, if oxygen is removed and the release of carbon dioxide is prevented. Sources include car exhaust, furnaces, gas-powered engines, water heaters, pool heaters and paint remover, as well as smoke from fires, stoves and even tobacco. The gas is problematic, as it is colorless, odorless and tasteless and initial exposure can produce no telling symptoms. Eventual symptoms include headaches, shortness of breath and dizziness. Ingesting it leads to carbon monoxide poisoning, which can lead to death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carbon monoxide poisoning is responsible for some 435 deaths per year; this has trended upward over the past decade. Without proper detection, it’s very difficult to understand why, or how, apparent illness sets in, when CO ingestion is the underlying cause. 

“Both calls were dispatched as medicals, and carbon monoxide was not even mentioned,” says Pribble. “On the first call, the crew was responding on a stroke, and the alarm sounded on the EMS kits as soon as they walked through the front door. If responders did not have the ToxiRAE 3 on their bags when they entered the first scene, they may have become victims themselves.” On that call, the portable alarms showed 400 parts per million (ppm) - a dangerous level. After the victims were removed, the responders went deeper into the house and discovered CO levels of 800 ppm.

It is not uncommon for first responders to be victims of carbon monoxide. This is something a community in Long Island, New York, recently discovered the hard way. During the very same time frame that Arvada first responders were alerted to two separate cases of harmful carbon monoxide levels, a restaurant in a Huntington shopping mall reported that the restaurant’s owners and patrons were experiencing symptoms. The restaurant owner died, and several others, including first responders, were taken to a nearby hospital to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Unlike the Arvada first responders, they were not carrying portable monitors.

People die or become ill every day because there is no means of detecting CO or because the detectors installed or failed.  In the small community of Arcadia, Wisconsin, 13 people, including five children, two emergency medical technicians and a sheriff’s deputy, were overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning when a charcoal grill was used inside a home. The Arcadia home had a CO detector, but it did not go off.

In Ogunquit, Maine, some 21 persons at a bed-and-breakfast were treated for CO poisoning. The inn had no detectors, as Maine state law does not require these for older structures unless the building has had major renovations.

It is of paramount importance for first responders to know, immediately upon entry, that CO is present, so they have time for egress and proper reaction. But only about 28 states mandate carbon monoxide detectors, and the requirements vary for different scenarios and structures. For example, only Maryland and Connecticut require them in schools. Texas requires them in child and adult day care centers. Other states require them in hotels. Some laws prohibit tampering or require detectors only in sleeping areas. Other laws apply only to newly built structures or those built after a certain date. New York State, where the restaurant owner died, requires carbon monoxide detectors in residential buildings but not in commercial structures. Since the incident, local politicians have started a movement to require carbon monoxide detectors in commercial establishments, as well.

A 2009 Colorado law requiring carbon monoxide detectors in residential facilities was enacted after a number of victims were lost to carbon monoxide poisoning. However, the detector at the Arvada location was on one level of the residence and did not pick up on the concentration of CO throughout the home. It was the first responders’ CO 3 detector that saved those present.

In Ohio, which does not require CO detectors, an Ohio State University student brought a small CO detector into an apartment she shared with a roommate. The detector went on to signal dangerous CO levels and saved their lives. 

Since the two incidents in Colorado, Arvada Fire has already ordered additional units to make sure that every EMS kit now has a CO detector on it. “The Life Safety Division is looking into purchasing some for the inspectors to wear every day as they conduct their business inspections,” says Pribble. “The Life Safety Division is also looking into purchasing the QRAE 3 for when they are ‘digging out’ a fire while completing their investigation.”

“First responders take safety very seriously,” explains Luke Sloan, with TG Technical Services, a distributor of RAE gas detectors for the western U.S. “Gas detectors are used more today by the fire service than any previous time. In the past, gas detectors were a tool primarily of the hazmat teams.”

In Colorado alone there have been numerous situations where gas detectors have been successfully used. According to Sloan, almost all fire departments in the Denver metro area and throughout Colorado deploy RAE Systems monitors at structure fires — pre- and post-extinguishment — as well as on gas leaks, spills, odor investigations, clandestine labs reports and chemical suicide calls.

Sloan cites many other western fire departments using RAE portable detectors with great success. “Colorado Springs Fire recently had a suspected clandestine lab where wireless portable units were deployed to ensure the safety of the entry teams,” he says. “Cheyenne [Wyoming] Fire recently used portable units while investigating a suspicious package at the local post office. Loveland Fire Rescue spent days after the floods using portable monitors checking homes, drums, tanks and cylinders all damaged during the floods.”

These examples demonstrate the value and continuing utility that portable CO detectors have, not only for protecting the lives of potential victims, but also the lives of first responders. Because of the transparency of carbon monoxide, its presence and danger cannot be known without detection equipment. Every day, another incident crops up; the right tools are an important ingredient in the day-to-day safety of first responders.

As emergency service departments continue to outfit their first responders with the best and most reliable equipment, portable gas detectors are likely to be widely adopted, particularly as national news continues to highlight injury and death from toxins such as CO and other gases, such as methane. Portable detectors are an easy solution to a potentially lethal problem.

“The fact that we have had two saves from these devices in such a short period of time has proven just how important they are,” says Pribble. “They are so small that you don’t even notice them on the EMS bag until they activate. We feel as though the ToxiRAE 3 has allowed us to provide better protection for our employees and better recognition and faster reactions for our citizens from this silent killer.”

Emergency responders need the very best tools to support the safety of the communities in which they serve and the hazards posed by the environments they work in.  Specifically, dangerous gases can be harmful, and even lethal, if not detected early and communicated to affected parties.  Because the presence of dangerous gases can be transparent and unknown without proper detection, portable detectors are a best defense in keeping with the highest safety standards.

By using RAE Systems monitors, Arvada, Colorado and their surrounding communities are able to safely  respond to incidents where toxic gases may be present, but not apparent.  These monitors help minimize safety incidents and risk to responders, and achieve control of a dangerous situation.  

James Strohecker is a Senior Global Marketing manager at RAE Systems by Honeywell.  RAE is a global sensor and wireless-system innovator that designs and manufactures a full line of fixed, portable, handheld and personal chemical- and radiation-detection instruments. The company’s life- and health-saving detectors are used in 120 countries by many of the world’s leading industrial corporations, first responders and government agencies.  For more information, see




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