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False Alarms with Carbon Monoxide Detectors

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  • False Alarms with Carbon Monoxide Detectors

    I curious to know if any other fire departments or agencies experience false alarm calls to residential responses for false alarms on carbon monoxide detectors.

    We make quite a few false alarm calls to these carbon monoxide detectors. We have however made a couple of responses to these type calls where carbon monoxide readings on our monitors actually showed an increased reading of carbon monoxide inside the residence. This was due to a faulty furnace that needed to be condemed. The residents actually had early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. So, in that particular call the detectors worked as it should.

    I'm curious if there maybe a national trend for false alarms on carbon monoxide detectors. This maybe helpful information to the carbon monoxide manufacturers and firefighters.


    Comments and opinions are mine and do not represent the agency or IAFF local that I am affiliated with.

  • #2
    Most of ours are legit. Every once in a while we get a malfunction but it is the execption, not the rule.
    Even the burger-flippers at McDonald's probably have some McWackers.


    • #3
      We still get false alarms at houses with the old style detectors. The new ones with LED displays and flashing light codes have helped reduce the number of false responses.
      "We shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in New York City."



      • #4
        We get about one in every ten as a legit call. About one in every thirty with CO poisoning symptoms. We show the home owner how to clear the older collection cartridges by leaving them in the freash air from time to time to keep false calls down.
        "What makes a person run into a building others are running out of?...Character."- Dennis Smith



        • #5
          I wouldn't consider the CO alarms false. The alarms are going off as designed, it is the comsumers failure to understand what the specific alarm is telling them is where u run into your "false" CO calls. The alarm is designed to alarm, as has been said already, when it reaches a certain level and it needs to be reset, another alarm i see alot is older models when there battery goes bad the CO detector will give a low battery alarm. If these people knew how to operate and to read the directions as to what the alarm is telling them then you wouldnt get as many "false" CO alarms as we do get.


          • #6
            I have found that the first generation CO detectors cause the most problems. The battery/sensor pack would be in alarm, yet the colored discs inside the sensor would still indicate that therwe was little or no CO exposure.

            The technology has improved. I have the electric CO detectors in my home, no problems.

            A related story....

            We were detailed to a CO detector activation. On arrival, we entered the home with the Industrial Scientific multigas meter. We found the detector to be an old First Alert CO detector. The funny thing was, the house had electric heat, electric water heater and an electric stove...no fossil fuel appliances or fireplace in the house.
            ‎"The education of a firefighter and the continued education of a firefighter is what makes "real" firefighters. Continuous skill development is the core of progressive firefighting. We learn by doing and doing it again and again, both on the training ground and the fireground."
            Lt. Ray McCormack, FDNY


            • #7
              CO Detector Calls

              We have not had a serious problem with CO detectors falsely activating, but have had our share. Most of the time it is the older detectors or else the low battery signal, which the people think is the alarm.

              We had a call yesterday, dispatched as ‘a high concentration of CO in the residence’. Dispatch gave no indication of any person(s) having symptoms
              Or any indication if the building was being evacuated. Upon arrival, to the designated apartment, the girl informed us that there were high levels in the apartment. We had three detectors going and none of them showed any alarming numbers. We checked the basement, chimney, and four other apartments (out of eight) With negative results. Two things I did notice though was that,
              #1, There were NO CO detectors anywhere in the building, and #2, being a very old, large home with numerous next to airtight small rooms with high
              ceilings (and lots of clutter) that everyone in the building smoked. As cold as it has been around here, windows have probably not been opened for some time. Some of the residents told us that they smelled a funny odor and then had a burning sensation in their throats. We instructed them that CO has no odor or taste and gave them the symptoms of CO poisoning. We also advised them to get a CO detector and not hesitate to call us again if their detectors activate.
              "The uniform is supposed to say something about you. You get it for nothing, but it comes with a history, so do the right thing when you're in it."
              Battalion Chief Ed Schoales
              from 'Report from Ground Zero' pg 149
              I.A.C.O.J. Member


              • #8
                Strong cleaning supplies as well as cooking with alcohol have been known to set off CO alarms. Might want to check if any of those activities have been taking place.


                • #9
                  We have been experiencing less and less false CO alarms.
                  Initially, with the older detectors we had a high rate of false alarms.

                  We have changed our response to CO calls.
                  The dispatcher asks if anyone is experiencing any symptoms of CO poisioning (goes through a few questions). In all cases the caller is told to evacuate, however, the FD response varies.

                  If there are no symptoms, the engine and truck respond without lights and sirens and no EMS is sent.
                  If there are symptoms, the engine, truck and ambulance are dispatched.
                  In all cases a chief is notified.

                  We always send 2 units to a CO call to get 2 separate detector readings.


                  • #10
                    Re: CO Detector Calls

                    Originally posted by AFD368

                    .... being a very old, large home with numerous next to airtight small rooms with high ceilings (and lots of clutter) that everyone in the building smoked....

                    ....Some of the residents told us that they smelled a funny odor and then had a burning sensation in their throats....

                    Even the burger-flippers at McDonald's probably have some McWackers.


                    • #11
                      Here Too........

                      Yes, we get calls for carbon monoxide detectors sounding. Yes, some of the calls seem to be unfounded. This seems to be no different than calls for smoke detectors sounding, sometimes for a reason, sometimes not. We get one or two a week it seems, but so far, there is no noticable trend toward unfounded calls. The story behind a couple of them bear repeating: 1. 0730 - The lady of the house is upset, detector is going off and she is gonna be late for work. Gastrac says 35ppm, we are looking everywhere. Asking a lot of questions, I find that her husband had just drove off as we arrived in response to the alarm and that he had been warming up his car IN the garage, WITH THE DOOR CLOSED. Duh. 2. 1300 - Another Lady says her detector started going off about 1000 but she didn't call us right away BECAUSE SHE DIDN'T SMELL ANYTHING. Duh. Stay Safe....
                      Never use Force! Get a Bigger Hammer.
                      In memory of
                      Chief Earle W. Woods, 1912 - 1997
                      Asst. Chief John R. Woods Sr. 1937 - 2006

                      IACOJ Budget Analyst

                      I Refuse to be a Spectator. If I come to the Game, I'm Playing.



                      • #12
                        I agree,when CO detectors were first being pushed we received many false alarms. Recently though we are trending in the other direction, more real alarms vs. false alarms.

                        We used to get falses during the summer during periods of very high humidity. We also had a false reading at a home filled with natural gas. We were called to the scene of a suspected CO alarm by the local utility company. Upon arrival we discovered a HVAC serviceman cleaning the home's furnace, it was almost completely coked up. We entered the structure to sense the amount of CO our AIM 3200 went off the wall, the home was filled with natural gas! I asked teh utility rep if he had tested for gas, no only CO he replied. I asled him to check for gas, which he did. About 1.2 seconds later my findings were confirmed. Seems the poorly burning furnace was exhausting into the home, only partially burning the gas, enough to burn off the rotten egg scent they add to the gas.

                        Many times the resident will ventilate the home prior to our arrival and when we test the atmosphere we have negative findings. If this is the case we leave behind a couple MSA CO tubes along with our fact sheet on CO, low tech but very effective. This gives us and the resident a little peace of mind. We have documented at least one save using the MSA CO tubes. We had a typical call, nothing detected when we arrive, all the windows and doors were open. We left two tubes behind. We instructed the resident how to read the markings on the tube, "if the test material turns color up to the first mark in 24 hours your have a problem, if it discolors up to the second mark in 7 days you have a problem". Well, the very next morning he was in the office to get some advise, "What do I do if the entire tube turns color in 8 hours?" (the instructions didn't cover this question!) These are worth their weight in gold.

                        The other trend we see lately is as new construction become more energy effecient, better windows and doors, etc., the more CO alarms we are seeing. As someone else stated in an earlier post, we treat every CO alarm as a real call.

                        Stay Safe.

                        "Improvise, Adapt, Overcome".........
                        Clint Eastwood, Heartbreak Ridge



                        NYS SFI


                        • #13
                          Just ran on one of these two days ago. We found it to be caused by a running car parked too close to the garage. The house was filled to beyond lethal limits with CO. Not a normal activation, but definitely not a false alarm.
                          IACOJ Military Division
                          NM Office
                          "There are three kinds of men: The ones who learn by reading, the few who learn by observation, and the rest of them who have to pee on the electric fence for themselves."


                          • #14
                            I hate to bump an older thread, but I wanted to thank everyone for the detailed responses.

                            My parents were being woken up almost the same time every night by a gas sensor in their room. My brother and I happened to be visiting and were woken up too. Even after canceling the alarm it would reactivate within a few minutes. The first night, we unplugged the alarm system so we could sleep.

                            But the night before I left to go home, I went into my parents room to investigate what was going on since LadyCapn mentioned strong cleaning supplies and alcohol based cooking could trigger a sensor. It wasn't either of these, but the whole room smelled of Vicks vaporub. Once they stopped the vaporub and we vented the room, the alarms went away. I hope this helps someone else with the same problem.

                            I'd like to also take this time to give sincere thanks to all of you that fight the fires and respond to emergencies that threaten lives. At one point, responders like yourself saved my parents house from burning down. Thank you for what you do. I know many of you don't hear it enough.


                            • #15
                              My career FD was experiencing multiple false CO detector alarms and the common thread was CO detectors in the 7 to 10 year old range. Just like everything else they wear out and need to be replaced over time.
                              Crazy, but that's how it goes
                              Millions of people living as foes
                              Maybe it's not too late
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