Silent killer almost struck again

silent killer almost struck

A silent killer almost struck again last week, but Franklin Fire Company firefighters saved the day for a local family. With the help of a basic piece of equipment every home should have.

The Franklins in Chambersburg put up a lengthy, but enlightening post about a call that possibly saved lives. With it came a reminder that with cooler temperatures at hand, that silent killer lurks in homes with wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

That killer is carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by burning gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel. While lots of fuels can produce the gas, in this instance the culprit was a fireplace.

Firefighters were called out last Wednesday night just after 10 p.m. for a reported carbon monoxide detector activation.

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“Keep in mind, any detector that activates, does so for a reason! Low batteries, false alarm or an actual hazardous emergency,” the company posted on its Facebook page.

No fire, but CO buildup

Squad 41, Engine 45 and Assistant Chief McKenzie “Wink” Winklbauer were first on the scene at the home. Occupants said their in-home CO alarm was going off. They told Winklbauer the same thing happened earlier in the day. They simply opened some windows, vented the house and didn’t call 911 then.

Crews entered the structure with their meters and immediately encountered 40 parts per million of CO on the 1st floor and nearly 80ppm in the basement.

Firefighters immediately began searching for the source.

Soon Truck 42 rolled up with an additional meter, along with medics who checked the occupants of the house. They were okay and refused treatment.

The truck crew along with Assistant Chief Dave Olson began metering, finding the same result in CO levels.

The homeowners advised they had all electric (no flame) appliances, ruling out an appliance malfunction. Their vehicles had not been started in days, ruling out exhaust fumes. They had a fireplace, but the wood fire hadn’t been lit in a few days.

Puzzled, the first responders keep looking for the source of the unusual CO readings.

The homeowners told the first responders that when the house was built about 30 years ago, the initial plan was for a gas fireplace. That plan was scrapped mid-build. Instead, a traditional wood burning fireplace was installed.

With that established, the fireplace became the focus of the investigation.

The fireplace was designed so ashes fell into a void space built in the basement of the home, investigators learned. So they headed back downstairs, this time with a thermal imaging camera.

Thermal imaging camera shows heat buildup

The void space was a concrete block, dirt floor enclosure under the fireplace’s firebox, with no clean out! Crews used the thermal imaging camera to see the heat build up in the enclosure. The small fires in the enclosure started venting and Carbon Monoxide built up in the house.

Crews used a hose line to wet down the contents of the enclosure. Afterwards, crews systematically vented the structure, ensuring no more CO was going to vent into the home.

Crews spent almost 3 hours at the house, returning early the next morning to make sure the environment was safe.

Fortunately, the story ends well, thanks to the presence of carbon monoxide monitors in the home. The fire company posted the story on social media, along with warnings that with cold weather and more frequent use of fireplaces, it is important to have working CO monitors in addition to smoke detectors.

‘Alarms go off for a reason’

“We never stop preaching about this common household issue,” the first responders said.

With both types of basic protection in a home, firefighters also cautioned: “Remember, the alarm(s) go off for a reason!”

Fireplaces in the home can create not only a fire hazard, but also an odorless, colorless, tasteless and invisible killer: Carbon Monoxide. CO is the deadly by-product of incomplete combustion. Everything that burns or produces a flame, gives off Carbon Monoxide.

Their message was clear:

“Please, have multiple CO alarms in your home. Carbon monoxide is slightly lighter than air, usually dispersing evenly throughout the home. Mounting the alarms on the wall is a safe bet, usually near an outlet.”

Carbon monoxide alarms are available at local hardware stores, or check your local fire department.

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