Firefighters warn of carbon monoxide

SALEM – City firefighters said residents need to be prepared with a working carbon monoxide detector, especially this time of year with furnaces and fireplaces producing heat and vehicles being warmed up.

“It’s a tasteless, colorless, odorless gas,” Capt. Shawn Mesler said.

It’s also deadly when it goes undetected.

Mesler explained that carbon monoxide attaches itself to hemoglobin in blood 200 times faster than oxygen, causing the body to absorb it very quickly. According to a brochure provided by the fire department, “it inhibits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to vital organs such as the heart and brain.”

The poisonous gas is produced by any incomplete combustion, such as wood or coal not burning hot or clean or a natural gas furnace not working properly. Heating and cooking equipment that burn fuel can be a source.

Mesler said some of the worst situations they’ve had in the city involved cracked heat exchangers in furnaces, which he said has happened numerous times and led to extremely high levels of carbon monoxide. Running a car in a garage can also cause a buildup.

He recalled one case involved a cracked heat exchanger when the residents started not feeling well, noting that luckily, they were awake when this all happened. If they had been sleeping, they could have had a case when the residents just didn’t wake up.

In another case when the power was out, a man had a generator running in the garage and the levels increased and could have been fatal. Mesler couldn’t recall whether the city had ever responded to a fatal case of carbon monoxide poisoning, but said they’ve had people who needed transported to the hospital.

Symptoms can be flu-like and include a headache, nausea, a flushed face, fatigue, confusion and dizziness. Children and pets show the signs sooner than adults.

To prevent a buildup of carbon monoxide, Mesler, Inspector Derek Day and Firefighter Kevin Bryan gave several tips.

If the flame on a gas stove isn’t burning a nice blue, if there’s a lot of yellow, the burners may need readjusted. With wood burners, keep everything cleaned out and clean out chimneys annually. Keep furnaces serviced and make sure hot water tanks are venting correctly. Don’t leave a vehicle or other fuel-burning device, such as lawn mowers or snow blowers, running in a garage.

For a residence, the level of carbon monoxide gas should be under 35 parts per million. If a detector goes off and the level is above 35 ppm, leave the residence and call the fire department or gas company.

Day said the residence should remain closed up so the fire department can determine the source or the cause of the increased level. If the windows are opened up, the levels will go down, making it harder to determine what caused the problem.

If possible, he said the recommendation is to have one carbon monoxide detector on every floor. If there’s only one, Mesler said to place it near sleeping areas. A detector should be checked regularly to make sure it’s working properly and batteries should be changed on a similar schedule to smoke detectors, every time the clocks are changed in the spring and fall.

Mesler cautioned that a smoke detector is not the same as a carbon monoxide detector – they’re not interchangeable. A smoke detector detects smoke only, not carbon monoxide gas. He also said carbon monoxide detectors have a shelf life of about 10 years and then should be replaced.

The fire department does not have a carbon monoxide detector program to give the devices away, but does have a program for those in need who can’t afford a smoke detector.

A city resident can call the fire department business number at 330-337-6183 and ask about the program or stop by the fire department.

The fire department will come out and install the smoke detector at no charge. Donations from businesses, residents and members of the firefighters union pay for the smoke detectors.

By city ordinance, landlords are obligated to install smoke detectors in all units. Residents should check the batteries and make sure they’re working properly.

For tips on carbon monoxide safey, check the National Fire Protection Association web site at

Mary Ann Greier can be reached at