By J.T. McVeigh
An infant’s death has made firefighter Samantha Hoffmann’s frustration palatable.
Hoffmann, a Public Fire and Life Safety officer with the Barrie Fire and Emergency Services, is speaking about the tragedy on March 18, when a 10-month-old boy died due to carbon-monoxide poisoning. Barrie firefighters, police and Simcoe County paramedics were called to a home on Barrie Drive following a 911 call. A man had arrived home to find his wife and their 10-month-old son unresponsive and his 2-year-old daughter awake but in a drowsy state.
“The father came home in the morning and found his family in distress,” Hoffmann said. “The-two-year-old was alert but showing some signs of something being wrong and his wife and ten-month-old baby were unresponsive so he called 911. It came in as a multiple-patient 911 (call), so the paramedics were concerned and then contacted us.
“When our crews showed up we were getting readings of 300 parts per million. People had been in and out of the house so that carbon monoxide (CO) had been allowed to dissipate, so the levels were probably considerably higher.”
The mother and the two-year-old daughter were airlifted to Toronto. The infant was pronounced dead at Barrie’s Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre. The incident is still under investigation by the Barrie police and the provincial coroner.
Carbon-monoxide detectors are probably a home’s most misunderstood appliance, Hoffmann says. Once they are installed, they are forgotten unless they go off.
“When you look at the statistics you can see that we have a lot of calls that are identified as a faulty detector,” says Hoffmann. “So I went to the manufacturers and said why are you making faulty detectors and they explained that very seldom is it a faulty detector. Any time that we say it is a faulty detector they want us to send it to them so that they can prove that it is not.”
The issue is the wide variety of conditions that can activate them is unusual, and people often don’t know what sets them off. Hoffman explained if they are placed too close to a litter box, the ammonia can set them off. Some household cleaning products can as well and, most beguiling of all, is a dimmable light switch can trigger them.
“There are so many things that can cause these alarms to ring and then what happens is that when people open the doors to let us in (the CO) mixes with the fresh air and when we go in with our gas detectors we don’t see any readings so we think it is a faulty detector,” says Hoffmann. “We don’t know what the people were doing before so that’s why I always tell people to spend a couple of extra dollars and get the one with the digital readout. The digital readout monitors also have a peak button that if you push it, it will show CO levels that the monitor has been exposed to.”
The biggest mistake people make, Hoffmann says, is thinking the furnace is going to be the problem, so they buy an alarm and install it beside their furnace.
But each time a furnace starts up, it pushes out a little puff of carbon monoxide, so false alarms are possible.
If the furnace is causing the problem, it’s going to push the CO gas through the entire home. If the alarm is installed in the basement, homeowners are already breathing in carbon monoxide when they are sleeping and, quite often, the monitor is not loud enough to respond to it, Hoffmann warns.
“I can’t even tell you how this incident makes me feel,” Hoffmann said of the death of the baby boy. “I take it personally. I don’t even know what we can do to get the message out. We have been firm. We just released a video called, ‘We’re not going to take it,’ and that was based on me having a really hard month in January because we had so many people die. They weren’t in my community but they were in my province. But now this is my community, my city and I don’t know what it is going to take, but it can’t just be the fire department (sounding the alarm).”
Firefighters checking the Barrie Drive home found a carbon monoxide unit in the basement but it hadn’t been installed.
Beginning April 1, Barrie fire crews will begin door to door canvassing to check for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
But to prevent tragedies like this happening in the future, Hoffmann believes the whole community has to be involved.
“Every time you go into someone’s house, look up and speak out,” she said. “Everywhere you go, take 30 seconds (to check for CO monitors) because somebody’s life depends on it.”