DennisBeaverJanuary 28, 2012 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Last week we looked at California’s new law which requires all homes to have a carbon monoxide alarm. While late to the party — 25 other states and cities have had similar laws for many years — California fire officials are relieved now that attention is being called to this “silent killer.”

“The law is extremely beneficial,” Hanford Fire Chief Timothy Ieronimo told “You and the Law.” “But it is only a beginning. Since it went into effect in July of 2011, we know that lots of people still are unaware of the requirements of having both smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in their homes.

“As with smoke detectors, it will take time before the public becomes aware that highly effective, easy-to-mount carbon monoxide alarms can be purchased for less than $20,” he said.

“Also, just like smoke detectors, we are going to have to remember to change the batteries at least once a year, to test the alarm, and most important of all, for kids of all ages, to not steal the batteries.”

Where is carbon monoxide found? Why is it so dangerous?

In more than 32 years of fire service, Ieronimo has seen firsthand just how dangerous carbon monoxide can be, and like other fire and emergency personnel we spoke with in researching this story, “has been concerned for years that in comparison to smoke and smoke detectors, much less attention has been paid nationally to the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“The only term which comes to mind that describes injury or death from carbon monoxide poisoning is ‘nightmare.’ You can’t see it, smell it or taste it, and it is everywhere as a by-product of combustion. Fuels we burn for energy or heat — natural gas, propane, oil, gasoline, charcoal or gas grills — all generate carbon monoxide.

“That is why proper venting of a furnace, gas water heater, gas range or oven are so important, and also why not to leave your car running in an unventilated space, such as a garage. As a lighter than air gas, it will rise, easily entering homes and apartments.

“It is the leading cause of accidental poisoning in America, with at least 500 deaths annually. Of the many tragic consequences of our current economic situation, many families are using their gas range or oven as a heat source, even using propane camp stoves to warm cold rooms.

“This is so dangerous and has resulted in many deaths. Having a carbon monoxide alarm would have saved lives in these and so many other situations, as they activate well before the level of gas reaches the danger zone. If you have an alarm and it sounds, believe it and get out.”

Where to place your alarm and what to buy

Correct placement of these alarms in a house or apartment is critical, said Ieronimo.

“In general, a smoke detector — or combination smoke detector and carbon monoxide alarm — needs to be located fairly high on a wall or on the ceiling, ideally in each bedroom and in hallways near bedrooms.

“However, as carbon monoxide mixes well with air, a stand-alone alarm can be placed anywhere as long as it is at least 15 feet from some combustible source, such as a fireplace, oven, furnace or gas appliance. Always follow manufacturer instructions on placement,” Ieronimo added.

There are a lot of acceptable alarms on the market, and we tested several. The most interesting are programmable, loudly and clearly announcing where smoke or carbon monoxide is present. Some permit recording of a parent’s voice, personally telling a child to get out of the house. We found First Alert’s Combination Smoke and Carbon Monoxide with Voice and Location easiest to use and program. With 85 decibels of sound, it absolutely got our attention when the test button was pushed.

Legal considerations

Fire Department officials are less concerned about the $200 fine for not having a carbon monoxide alarm than in keeping us safe. But what will our homeowners insurance say if someone is injured or killed because we didn’t have that alarm?

An intentional violation of law, such as driving under the influence that results in personal injury or death, has been used by insurance companies in Australia and other counties which share our common law as a way to deny coverage.

Knowing that you can lose insurance protection is a powerful deterrent to criminally dangerous behavior — that’s the justification. Would failing to have a smoke or carbon monoxide detector fall into that category here?

That is being studied by the insurance industry. But would our courts uphold such exclusions of coverage?

We can only ask the question. One thing is certain; you don’t want to be the test case.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.