It was the coldest night we had that January—the temperature dropped to nine degrees. The oil furnace was cranking. My elderly parents were asleep. My sister was visiting and in the extra bedroom. We had all retired to the warmth of the covers and soon dropped into slumber. And then, as usual, something woke me up. I am the adult incarnation of the girl in “The Princess and the Pea.” Sometimes I swear that a piece of lint dropping on the basement floor could wake me two stories above.
I got up and thought groggily, “what the heck is that weird noise?” It was coming from downstairs, so I stumbled down. It was the carbon monoxide detector, blaring. I was confused. I also sensed an odd smell. I woke my sister, wanting another person to assess the situation. She also had a detector in her room which was silent. About sixty seconds after her door was opened, her detector started shrieking. I woke my boyfriend, and ran downstairs to call 911. My dad was in his first floor room, bed bound by a recent stroke. My sister woke my mother and got her into shoes and a coat. By the time I reached the 911 operator, every detector of every kind was going off. I could barely hear him over the chaos. He told me that the firemen were on the way, to open the windows and get everyone out of the house. I kept repeating to him that my father couldn’t stand or walk, but I opened his window wide and then grabbed the dog leash to get the dog out. My sister was walking the dog back and forth as the firemen arrived to hoist my Dad onto a gurney. The man with the official carbon monoxide detector walked into the living room and said, “No one comes in here unless they’re suited up!”
Hazmat suits, I knew that wasn’t good. It was so cold and we were in bathrobes and sneakers. The first aiders put all of us in an ambulance so we wouldn’t suffer hypothermia. They kept asking if anyone had a headache or respiratory problems, but everyone seemed as fine as we could be for 2:30 on a freezing morning. They told us that no one would be able to go back into the house that night, and transported us to a nearby family member’s home where we all slept in the living room.
We found out the next day that the workers repairing our chimney had pushed debris inside and blocked the furnace vent. The oil furnace was venting directly into the house, and the carbon monoxide levels were beyond lethal. That teeny tiny little box had worked exactly as it was supposed to, and saved the lives of five people and one dog. Without the alarms, everyone in the house would likely have been dead by morning. The word of the evacuation spread throughout our small town, and I was shocked to hear so many people tell me that they didn’t have carbon monoxide detectors, or didn’t know if they had them. Serious kudos were also bestowed upon the volunteer first responders who came out in the wee hours of a frozen morning.
There are many ways that carbon monoxide can invade your space—a car exhaust pipe or household vent blocked with snow, a car running in a garage attached to your house—-any improper venting of fossil fuels.
Because we had a detector in the house that night, I am here now to tell you to make sure that you have one (We have since gone from having two to having four). PLEASE go check right now to see if you have a working carbon monoxide detector in your home.