I was on duty last night for the 911 EMS service I volunteer for. Somewhere around 2130 we got dispatched to a CO detector activation. Those are usually generally pretty boring. Often times they are a false alarm. Occasionally they find a minor problem with some gas appliance. It’s real easy to let your guard down when dispatched to one.
My unit was the first to arrive on the scene and as an EMS unit, all we did was to make sure the house had been evacuated. The guys on the engine are the ones that get to take the gas meter in to see if anything is going on. The homeowner was standing in the front yard waiting for us. His wife was nearby. They explained that the house was empty of all living creatures except their elderly dog. One of the things we immediately noted in the area was the smell of something burning. It smelled like a wood burning fireplace in the area. Since we didn’t see any smoke in the immediate area and the homeowner didn’t seem to notice it, we didn’t worry about it much. It’s cold after all. People have fireplaces…
While we waited for the fire apparatus to arrive, he explained the situation. Apparently they are a fixed income couple (elderly both) and they had applied for some home upgrade assistance through the local energy company. One of the things that was done for them was that additional insulation was added to their house. A work crew was out earlier that day and had added a bunch of blown in insulation to the attic. The crew apparently also installed a new digital CO detector. That was the detector that had alarmed, showing a reading of 83 parts per million. A high number as CO goes. Fortunately neither the man nor his wife were showing any symptoms, and they thought it might be a malfunction. They also indicated that their only non-electric appliance was a gas water heater, and there is no fire place.
When the fire department arrived, the engine crew dismounted, gas meter in hand, and headed for the house. As soon as they walked in the door, the meter went nuts, confirming the CO reading. The crew also noticed that the burning smell apparent outside, was also apparent inside. Since it developed slowly, the residents hadn’t noticed it. When the owner went back in the door after being in the fresh air though, he could smell it too.
Things got exciting fast. The owner got his dog out to safety while the fire crew got a hose line and the thermal imaging camera. In seconds they determined that there was something very hot in the attic. The house power was shut off, the hose line charged, the generator started and the scene spot lights turned on.
It was then that the smoke was apparent from under the eves and out the soffit vents.
The CO detector had apparently detected a structure fire even before the home smoke detectors did.
The alarm was upgraded to a working structure fire.
The fire crew gained access to the attic and found a slow smoldering fire which involved some of the wood structure and some of the newly installed insulation. It was the type of fire that could have easily burned for hours before being noticed. Had the homeowners gone to bed they would have probably died from smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide gas before the fire was even visible from the outside on the dark street. That carbon monoxide detector save the lives of the owner, his wife and the family dog. The smoke alarms never sounded.
The cause of the fire was found to be a rechargeable battery operated light that was left sitting on a wood cross member, probably by a contractor. Based on the melting of the housing and the burn patterns, it appears the light was left on and got hot to the point of melting the bulb enclosure. The molten plastic eventually caught fire and spread to the wood under it and the insulation around it.
The fire department was able to extinguish the fire with a minimum of water damage, so the family was not displaced. There was no significant structural damage or damage to the wiring.
I of course left the camera at the station because… it was only a CO detector call…
I think I’m going out right now to buy a CO detector.