Smoke Alarms

The Chief’s Corner

Fire Safety Tips from James Levine,
Fire Chief of the Upper Saddle River Fire Department and 20 year veteran of the New Jersey fire service.
December 24, 2005

So many of the alarms we are called to as firefighters are for something called, “CO”.  We constantly receive questions about this subject, so I guess it’s best we address it head-on.  Just what is this CO?  CO is carbon monoxide- like the stuff that comes out of the tailpipe of your car- it’s a byproduct of fuel combustion.   (Let’s not confuse this with carbon dioxide (CO2)- a byproduct of respiration.)  Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas.  It is invisible, odorless and colorless.  And what happens if it gets into your home?  Left undetected it can rob your body of the oxygen it needs and leave you with a headache, confused, dizzy, nauseated, faint or worse…DEAD!

It’s scary to think that this might happen while you sleep, so what can you do about this menace?  The winter months are especially critical, since that’s when our homes are sealed up most tightly.  In addition, the heat is on and stoves are in constant use.  The concern here is with natural gas, not electric units. Yes, the hot water heater and clothes dryer can be also be sources of CO.   And let’s not forget about some other possible sources of CO around the home- generators and vehicles.

OK, first, as always, let’s lay down a few simple rules to help keep us safe.  Rule number 1:  Install a CO alarm in your home!  Do it today!  And keep fresh batteries in the unit.  Test the alarm every few weeks.  Make sure to locate the alarms outside of each sleeping area in your home.  It’s also a good idea to install a CO alarm just outside the utility room where your furnace and hot water heater are.  And don’t forget to replace the alarm, itself, as it approaches the end of its service life- check the manufacturer’s instructions- these things don’t last forever.  Don’t confuse this device with a smoke detector- you should have both of these units in your home.

Now this next one might sound so very elementary, but it needs to be said, nonetheless. Rule number 2: Never, and I mean NEVER leave a fuel burning vehicle or power equipment running in a garage- closed or open.   Here’s where the movies are relatively accurate- the result can be certain death!  If you need to warm up your vehicle, pull it out of the garage and let it run in the driveway.  Don’t run any fueled power tools in the house.

Rule number 3:  Preventing the buildup of CO in the house also means ensuring that all flues and vents for wood and fuel burning equipment are free of debris, snow, and other types of blockage including leaves and small animals.  Don’t forget that gas dryer, too.   Not just CO, but fire, itself can originate from a vent hose clogged with lint.  We all love the sight and aroma of wood burning fireplaces and stoves, so let’s make sure we operate them safely.  Let’s get those flues cleaned and checked annually.  And open the flue BEFORE you light those fires.  It can be embarrassing to have your neighbors see your house filled with smoke and a fire truck in front!

OK, now what do you do if your CO alarm sounds?  First, let’s get everyone OUT OF THE HOUSE and then call the emergency response number for your town.  If you haven’t put this number into your cell phone or committed it to memory, then call 9-1-1 and stay out of the house until directed to return by the responding agency.

Not to be glum, but each year more than 300 people in this country perish in their homes from CO poisoning.  Following these simple rules will prevent you and your family from making a contribution to this statistic.  Let’s be safe in our homes!

Questions?  Or thinking of becoming a volunteer firefighter?  E-mail Chief Levine at: