If your carbon monoxide detector starts beeping, you need to evacuate your home or workplace immediately. No ifs, ands, or buts. Actually, the only butts are those of you and your love ones leaving your home.
This public service announcement is coming to you today from ELi because this happened to me early last Sunday morning. It was 2:20 a.m. when I faintly heard a beep from downstairs. Our carbon monoxide detector was going off.
My boyfriend and I are alive and well, but carbon monoxide poisoning is no joke. Carbon monoxide is called the silent killer because you cannot see it, taste it, or smell it. If you think you smell gas, that would be the odor added purposefully to the natural gas coming to your home through gas lines. Natural gas is obviously a concern, but carbon monoxide is so deadly specifically because there’s no way – besides a detector – for you to know that it is there. Again, you cannot see it, taste it, or smell it.
Carbon monoxide is more likely to kill in the colder months when we are more likely to use things like fireplaces, furnaces, and water heaters, which produce carbon monoxide, and less likely to ventilate our homes by opening windows.
ELi brings you some advice on how you might prepare for and handle a similar event in your household.
An ounce of prevention is worth your life.
We were lucky. Just the weekend before our CO detector went off, we had switched out the batteries of our smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. I’ll admit that I don’t always remember to do that every six months, but I saw the batteries in the store around the end of daylight savings time and bought them.
Lieutenant John Newman of the East Lansing Fire Department also recommends having your furnace and water heater serviced before turning on the furnace for the first time each year. If something is malfunctioning or the ventilation is faulty, the technician servicing the equipment will let you know.
If we had done this in our household, we might have realized that parts of our furnace were rusted away, allowing for carbon monoxide to enter the airstream. Our failure to service our furnace meant that we let it turn into a killing machine.
You should also let everyone in your household know that the plan is to evacuate when you hear that alarm go off. My boyfriend is an engineer and felt pretty confident that he knew what was going on: something about a vent, the drop in temperature, the density of the air, something, something, something. He recommended opening the windows and turning off the furnace.
I wholly trust that he is way more knowledgeable than me with mechanics and engineering, but I know enough about the scientific method to realize this was an unproven hypothesis. No experiment had been conducted, no data collected, and frankly, it wasn’t the time to stick around to find out. It would have been helpful to have been on the same page before this happened instead of hashing out the details in the moment of crisis.
The alarm goes off. Get out! But then what?
Your carbon monoxide detector going off most likely means you have a buildup of carbon monoxide in your home. You purchased a carbon monoxide detector to alert you that it is present, so you might as well listen to it by leaving your home immediately. If you stay and the detector was right, you may never learn that you were wrong.
I knew to get out of our home because my dad was the assistant chief operating engineer and life safety director for a large office building in New York City. Growing up, I repeatedly heard how dangerous candles were. When I went to college, I received links to YouTube videos that showed the deadly fires that resulted from leaving your charging laptop on your bed.
And, over and over from dad, I heard, “Get the heck out when alarms go off.” On the fortieth floor of an office building? Better start moving. Everyone else is still sitting at their desk? Let them laugh at you because you will probably be alive either way. Maybe they won’t be.
When ELi spoke to Lieutenant Newman, he said that after leaving your residence, you should immediately call 911. Firefighters have self-contained breathing apparatuses so they can breathe safely inside the building. Once inside, firefighters can evaluate the quality of the air and try to figure out what is causing the buildup of carbon monoxide.
Depending on the specifics, the fire department will shut off whatever is producing carbon monoxide and properly ventilate the residence. It is possible that someone from the utility company – typically Consumers Energy in East Lansing – will also be called out. After the issue has been addressed, you can safely reenter your home.
Treat fire alarms similarly. If you have any doubt about why a smoke alarm is going off, or if you put out a fire but can’t truly be sure it is out – as happened with ELi’s Publisher Alice Dreger when she had an electrical outlet catch fire and then apparently go out on its own – call the fire department. They have special equipment to make sure nothing is still smoldering.
Where will you stay in the meantime?
There may be a period of time where you cannot be inside your home, so you might make plans for what you will do should this happen.
Where will you go if your carbon monoxide detector goes off? You might research hotels that accommodate the needs of you, your family, and pets. You might make arrangements with family, neighbors, or friends, but who you might reach out to could be different during the pandemic. It’s good to also have plans for how you might contact them, particularly if they put their phone on silent in the evenings. (Consider asking your chosen emergency contacts to mark you a “favorite” and to put their phones on “do not disturb” with the setting that allows “favorites” to break through.)
If you do not have the funds to stay at a hotel and you have no one local to help you, tell the fire department or the police department and they will help you find safe shelter.
What will you bring? It’s never a bad idea to have a to-go bag ready for any emergency. You can have fresh clothes, toiletries, and snacks at the ready. You should consider any specific needs, such as back-up medications, backup forms of ID, and old eyeglasses that can work in a pinch.
I wish I had done some of this advanced planning. We have a 12-year-old beagle, and our furry friends are susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning as well. I was frantically searching hotels with pet-friendly policies from our backyard.
When we left, I had also just grabbed my laptop, slippers, and a face mask. I think my boyfriend remembered his contact solution, mouthwash, and face mask. We didn’t even remember a water bowl for Lily, the beagle. She was a champ about drinking from a disposable hotel water cup.
We are doing fine here, one new furnace later, but I was shocked by how many stories I heard of people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning after I shared my story with friends. It seemed like everyone knew someone or knew someone who knew someone who had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. I’m still unnerved by the story I heard about a child finding a whole family dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. I’m glad we got out.
Make sure ELi can continue to provide valuable public services like this in 2021!