Baltimore County Now
Fire Chief John Hohman
In 2005, a 48-year-old man and his two stepdaughters, aged 14 and 15, died in their Essex townhouse after inhaling carbon monoxide.
In 2009, a 44-year-old woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her Fullerton apartment. The CO also sickened three others in the home, though they survived.
In 2010, two men, construction workers who boarded with a family in Pikesville, died in a CO incident. The house was a rental property.
Today, I am proud to say that we have come a long way toward preventing senseless deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. Since the 2010 fatalities, Baltimore County has reported no carbon monoxide related deaths.
As a Fire Chief with more than 35 years in the fire service, I know this reduction in CO-related tragedies did not happen by accident. We can be grateful to the life-saving carbon monoxide detector – and a piece of County legislation enacted several years ago requiring CO detectors in all rental properties.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas created by the incomplete burning of fuels, such as oil, natural gas, kerosene, coal and wood. Many household appliances use these fuels. If you have a clothes dryer, water heater, an oven or fireplace that uses natural gas, CO buildup can happen. Wood burning fireplaces and stoves, as well as kerosene space heaters, also produce CO. If not detected, CO buildup from these appliances can seriously injure or even kill you.
The dangers of carbon monoxide escalate during periods of extreme heat and extreme cold. On a freezing cold day – like the record-breaking cold we have felt this month – homes are tightly sealed to keep in the warmth. You may have the heat turned up, the fireplace burning or a space heater running. If CO leaks because one of these devices is malfunctioning, it has no choice but to build up.
Common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, nausea, dizziness, irritability, shortness of breath, weakness and fatigue. One of the most dangerous things about CO poisoning is that none of the early symptoms indicate a life-threatening situation. If undetected, the deadly gas can kill without your even knowing it is there. High levels of CO can kill within hours. Low levels will build up over time and slowly make you sick.
Since the 2009 legislation, the number of CO calls handled by the fire department has increased. There were 704 CO calls received in 2013 alone. And this is good.
People now call the fire department when their CO alarms sound. This means that they are aware of the leak and are getting assistance before it is too late. The detectors are programmed to go off when levels of CO are very low, before the average adult experiences any symptoms.
Significantly, deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning plummeted after enforcement of Baltimore County’s law requiring CO alarms in rental properties. In addition, a state law passed in 2007 required all new construction to have CO alarms. I have no doubt that these laws are responsible for reducing serious carbon monoxide incidents.
Even with these advances, we need to do more to educate about carbon monoxide. This month, the Baltimore County Fire Department responded to a call in Randallstown. A mother and two sons were transported to the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, seriously ill from CO poisoning.
They were lucky. The family survived despite very high levels of CO in the house -- 780 parts per million. This family’s house did not fall under any of the laws requiring CO alarms.
Let this near-tragedy be a reminder of the importance of having a CO alarm in every home.
Carbon monoxide related injuries and deaths are 100 percent preventable. Having a fully-functioning CO detector in your home can save your life.
Battalion Chief Jennifer Utz
Everyone has a favorite time of year, and although I no longer welcome the cold Maryland winters, I do long for December. For me, it is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Whether cutting down a Christmas tree, decorating the house, baking cookies or socializing with friends, I couldn’t find more happiness than I do during this time of year.
Still, as I relax by the fire, watch the lights glimmer and listen to the sounds of the season, I am reminded of the danger that all of this beauty can bring. In my nearly 14 years with the Baltimore County Fire Department, I have witnessed a lot of misfortune – but it is especially devastating when fires happen at such a wonderful time of year.
The good news is that fire is preventable. Here are reminders to keep your family safe as you celebrate.
· Cooking. Unattended cooking is the leading cause of house fires and associated injuries. When cooking your holiday favorites, stay in the kitchen at all times. Do not let children near ovens and range tops. If the oven catches fire, turn it off, keep the door closed and call 911. Always keep a lid nearby if a pot catches fire; use the lid to smother the fire. Never put water on a grease fire; it will spread the fire! Get out of the house, and stay out until the fire department arrives.
· Decorations: Look for packages marked as flame resistant or retardant. Always keep combustible decorations away from any type of heat source. If you are using mini lights, string no more than three sets together and make sure the cords are not damaged. If you choose screw-in bulbs, use no more than 50 per set; and always check the manufacturers label on LED light sets for directions. Keep extension cords to a minimum, never run them under carpets, and if used outside keep plugs and cords free from standing water or snow. Do not use nails to hang lights, always use clips that won’t damage or cut through the cords. Call an electrician if lights flicker or fuses blow. Finally, always turn off lights and decorations when you go to bed or leave the house.
· Candles: Keep open flame candles at least 12 inches from anything that can catch fire. Watch children and pets carefully when using candles. Use a sturdy candle holder. Consider electric or flameless candles.
· Christmas Trees: The smell and tradition of a fresh cut tree is priceless. If your family chooses a live tree, keep it watered daily. Always unplug the lights before going to bed or leaving the home, and keep the tree at least three feet from heat sources.
· Carbon Monoxide: One final warning during this holiday season is to have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. A faulty furnace, water heater or other gas appliance can emit carbon monoxide. Clogged chimneys, running vehicles and generators too close to the house also will cause a buildup of this deadly gas.
As you celebrate the holidays and spend time with family, remember these tips and stay safe!
Battalion Chief Jennifer Utz
During my career with the Baltimore County Fire Department, one particular fire stands out in my mind.
A family reported a house fire, and when we arrived we found a man with black soot on his face. He needed medical evaluation for smoke inhalation. When we asked him what had happened – how he was exposed to so much smoke – he said he had been trying to retrieve a high school ring.
Many of us can relate to his emotional connection with a special possession. But this person was lucky: His search for a replaceable object could have cost him his life.
According to the National Fire Protection Agency, 3,005 civilian fire deaths were reported in the U.S. during 2011. House fires accounted for more than 2,500 of those fatal fires, as well as 13,000 civilian injuries.
Although the rate of fire deaths has dropped over the past few decades, these numbers remain alarming because most fire deaths are so preventable. I’ve found that many, if not most, fire deaths or injuries occur when people make certain critical mistakes:
• They delay getting out of the house. They check around the home to see if they can find out why they smell smoke. They run from room to room, grabbing items they want to save. They decide to call somebody- a spouse at work, for example- to ask what they should do.
If you see or smell smoke, or if a smoke detector activates, leave the home immediately. Once everyone is outside, call 911 either by cell phone or a nearby neighbor’s house. Let firefighters, who are trained and equipped, search for the source of a fire.
• They run back inside. They get out safely, but go back into the house to try to save a child, pet, or special possession. Let firefighters, who are trained and equipped, perform rescues.
• They panic, especially if an emergency occurs while they are sleeping. If you are sleeping and you hear the smoke detector or smell smoke, stay calm. Feel the bedroom door for heat, using the back of your hand. If the surface is hot, do not open it.
If possible, go to a window and make your escape that way. Or, wait at the window and wave your hands so the firefighters can see you. Stuff towels, sheets, or clothing at the bottom of the door to slow the spread of deadly smoke.
• They underestimate the deadliness of smoke. Most victims die from smoke inhalation and toxic gases, not burns. If you can’t get out without traveling through smoke, stay low, cover your mouth and nose, and crawl to an exit.
• They don’t install or properly maintain smoke detectors. At least one smoke detector should be installed outside of all sleeping areas. Smoke detectors should be tested monthly, and the batteries changed twice a year.
Too many times, people remove a battery from a smoke detector to stop it from alarming when the battery is low or when cooking, or because they need a battery for something else.
Our web site, www.baltimorecountymd.gov/firesafety, is a good place to start when making a home fire escape plan.
When I talk to citizens about home fire escape planning, I stress that it isn’t enough just to have a plan. The entire family needs to review and practice the plan a couple of times a year. That's the best way to avoid the kinds of mistakes that make an already traumatic event something much worse.