Things you can’t see can kill you. Every year, thousands of people in the United States die from an invisible killer – carbon monoxide. A colorless, odorless gas, carbon monoxide is deadly to both humans and animals, because it displaces oxygen in the blood.
Henderson Fire Department Chief Rusty Chote said as temperatures drop in the winter, the number of reported carbon monoxide poisoning incidents increases.
“Every year, people turn on their gas heaters to keep warm,” Chote said. “If there is a blue flame it’s a good sign that it’s burning properly. A yellow flame is not good. We recommend that everyone have their heating units checked yearly by a licensed repairman,” he said. “This is to ensure the safest operation of the unit.”
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 200 people die every year from carbon monoxide fumes produced by fuel-burning appliances – ranges, furnaces, water heaters, etc.
“Gas heaters that are not connected or operating properly can produce deadly CO gases,” Chote said. “Burning charcoal inside homes, garages, vehicles or tents claims many other lives, studies show […] others die from CO produced by leaving cars running in closed, attached garages of homes.
Chote said thousands report to hospital emergency rooms annually for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
“The HFD is also staying ready for the possibility of emergencies brought on by space heaters and fireplaces,” he said. “As the weather starts to turn colder and colder over the next couple months, a lot of people will bring out space heaters and other types of heating devices to stay warm. But it’s something that you have to be very careful with […] we’ve seen too many house fires started by blankets or other materials being ignited.”
More importantly, Chote said, residents need to maintain working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.
“Be sure every level of your home has a working smoke alarm. Be sure to check and clean it on a monthly basis,” he said. “Plan and practice a home escape plan with your family.”
Chote said any residents who didn’t take advantage of the recent time change to replace batteries in their smoke detectors can use any of the upcoming holidays to do so.
“It’s helpful to establish a routine of checking your smoke detector during a holiday so you’re reminded each year,” he said. “If you didn’t check your smoke detector with the time change then Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Day affords you an excellent opportunity to do so […] anything that helps you remember to do it each year.”
While the area has yet to see any ice or frozen precipitation, Chote said it’s better to be prepared beforehand rather than scrambling to adjust when it’s happening.
“If you’re talking about ice, you’re also talking about power outages,” he said. “With power outages, you’re looking at people using generators.”
Chote said using a generator is fine but you have to make sure it stays in a place where it can be properly ventilated. Citing a recent a report from the United States Fire Administration, Chote stressed how many fatalities during this time of year could be avoided by following some basic safety precautions.
“So many of these fires can be prevented,” he added.
A closer look at any heater you use is important, Chote said, to be sure it remains in good working condition.
“Inspect exhaust parts for carbon buildup,” he said. “Be sure the heater has an emergency shut off in case the heater is tipped over and never use fuel-burning appliances without proper room venting […] burning fuel can produce deadly fumes.”
Chote said it’s important to only use the fuel recommended by the heater manufacturer.
“Never introduce a fuel into a unit not designed for that type fuel,” he said. “And keep kerosene, or other flammable liquids stored in approved metal containers, in well-ventilated storage areas, outside of the house […] but do not use cold fuel for it may expand in the tank as it warms up.”
Young children should be kept away from space heaters, Chote added, especially when they are wearing nightgowns or other loose clothing that can be easily ignited.
“Wood stoves and fireplaces are becoming a very common heat source in homes,” he said. “Careful attention to safety can minimize their fire hazard.”
Chote said a fireplace or wood stove must be installed properly and have adequate clearance from combustible surfaces and proper floor support and protection.
“Have the chimney inspected annually and cleaned if necessary, especially if it has not been used for some time, and never use flammable liquids to start or accelerate any fire,” he said. “A glass or metal screen should always be in front of the fireplace opening to prevent embers or sparks from jumping out, unwanted material from going in, and help prevent the possibility of burns to occupants.”
Additionally, residents should be sure the fireplace fire is out before going to bed.
“Never close your damper with hot ashes in the fireplace,” he said. “A closed damper will help the fire to heat up again and will force toxic carbon monoxide into the house.”
Chote cited a fatal house fire in Connecticut that occurred as a result of the victim disposing of hot ash in a nearby trash receptacle.
“Never discard hot ashes inside or near the home, place them in a metal container outside and well away from the house,” he added.
For any questions or concerns about fire safety, HFD Chief Rusty Chote encourages Henderson residents to call him at the Central Fire Station (903) 657-6551.