Less than a year after a 7-year-old girl died from carbon monoxide fumes in her Plymouth home when a snowdrift blocked an exhaust vent, Massachusetts had a law on the books requiring most homes be equipped with CO detectors.
"Nicole's Law," named after Nicole Garofalo, has doubtless prevented many deaths and close calls since it was signed in 2005 by then-Gov. Mitt Romney. Large buildings with multiple units had until Jan. 1, 2007, to install hard-wired detectors, extending the protection of these devices against the odorless, colorless and sometimes lethal gas.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says carbon monoxide poisoning leads to more than 50,000 emergency room visits and 400 deaths nationwide each year. But those numbers have dropped as more states have mandated CO detectors in homes and apartments.
A gap in Bay State regulations means older school buildings – which must have smoke detectors and working alarms – aren't required to be fitted with carbon monoxide detectors, a fact that some fire officials see as a tragedy waiting to happen.
Fire chiefs and an official from the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts went to Beacon Hill last week to speak out for bills before the Joint Committee on Education that would close that loophole.
"No parent would expect their child to go to school without a fire alarm," Douglas Fire Chief Ken Vinson said in a story by State House News Service. "That's an enemy we can see. We can see fire, we can see smoke. Carbon monoxide is odorless and tasteless. It'll take you before you even realize."
The issue hits close to home for Vinson. In 2014, 16 students and two adults in Douglas were hospitalized for CO poisoning at a school. That incident prompted the town to install CO alarms in its schools, but Vinson noted the Legislature has yet to require all school systems to follow suit.
In his testimony, Bill Scoble, government affairs director for the Fire Chiefs Association, said he believes many older schools across the state don't have these detectors, although coming up with a list would be challenging. He said that in Boston, just two of 122 school buildings have CO detectors installed.
The danger posed by carbon monoxide is etched in hospital records and reports by emergency responders across the country every year.
In this region last November seven people were taken to a hospital in Lawrence after they were overcome by CO fumes, fire officials said. The incident wasn't connected to the Columbia Gas explosions and fires. Fire officials in the city said there were no working CO detectors in the building and that the buildup of fumes came from a malfunctioning boiler component.
It's clear that working CO detectors go a long way to protect people at home, and the regulations should make the same requirement of all school buildings in Massachusetts.
In his testimony last week, the Douglas fire chief said, "We dodged a bullet, but that's why I have such a passion for making this (legislation) happen. We don't want to see someone die because we failed to act."
Two bills, H. 399 and H. 412, before the Education Committee would go beyond schools and mandate CO detectors in many other public buildings. As with so many things that take place on Beacon Hill, this legislation has hit a wall there in the past; in 2014, the Senate passed a bill requiring CO alarms in schools and restaurants, but it never made it into law.
School officials would be wise to check their older buildings and make sure carbon monoxide detectors are installed, whether or not regulations require them. And lawmakers might want to heed the words of the Douglas fire chief who knows firsthand what working CO detectors can do to save lives.