Campbell, CA – Campbell resident Suzanne Smith thought the carbon monoxide alarm she received from her mother was a strange Christmas gift nine years ago. This holiday season it was the gift that saved her family’s life.
Smith, her husband Jeff and their three young daughters, 8-year-old Stormie and 4-year-old twins Bailee and Montana, were awakened around 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 3 by the beeping carbon monoxide alarm. The carbon monoxide levels inside their home were dangerously high. Smith and her family evacuated the home before any life-threatening damage occurred.
“I shudder to think of what could have happened. I really don’t think we’d be here today to tell our story,” Smith says. “I called my mother and told her that she saved our lives.”
Carbon monoxide, or CO, is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause illness and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control, carbon monoxide poisoning is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the nation, responsible for 500 unintentional deaths each year. Nationwide between 3,000 to 5,000 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms for carbon monoxide poisoning.
Smith, who admits she never realized the importance of having the alarm system before, wants to educate the community and urge residents to make sure they have one in their home.
“Speaking with my neighbors, I realized how few families have these alarms,” Smith says. “I just want to tell people the importance of having them. It’s so easy. You just plug it into the wall.”
Smith said she’s thankful to her mother, Patricia Douglas, a retired nurse, and to the firefighters at Sunnyoaks Fire Station in Campbell, for their quick response.
Using carbon monoxide detectors, the firefighters surveyed the inside of the residence, shut off the appliances, ventilated the building and did a quick survey as to the potential source.
Smith’s daughters were frightened by the experience but thankful for the firefighters help.
“I was very scared for my family and for my cat,” Bailee says. “I was glad when they got the yucky air out.”
It was not until the emergency response team left the Smiths’ home that the family realized just how lucky they were.
“I was pretty calm up until that point but once they left, reality finally sunk in,” Smith says. “This could have easily been the most devastating holiday for my family.”
Carbon monoxide alarm systems measure CO exposure in parts per million, or ppm. Exposure to more than 200 ppm over a two- to three-hour period, symptoms can result in flu-like symptoms, says Christie Moore, public education officer with the Santa Clara County Fire Department. Symptoms can include headache, fatigue, nausea and/or dizziness.
“The symptoms can be very deceiving,” Moore says. “People will feel like they are getting the flu and stay indoors instead of getting away form the source.”
Sources of CO include the furnace, water heater, oven, range, clothes dryer, fireplace, space heater, charcoal grill, wood-burning stove or an idling vehicle in an attached garage, Moore says.
CO incidents can also be caused by improper installation, poor maintenance or inadequate ventilation of appliances.
Incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning, which occur several times a year, tend to increase during the winter season, according to Capt. Kelly Seitz, who is a hazardous material specialist for the Santa Clara County Fire Department.
“Carbon monoxide poisoning is on the rise because gas appliances are becoming more common again,” Seitz says. “We see an increase of incidents, especially during this time of year, because people will fire up the furnace for the first time in a while.”
Sietz stresses the importance of having carbon monoxide alarms in households.
“Having a detector is a valuable tool to have,” he says. “[CO poisoning] is known as the silent killer. People will go to bed, and sometimes don’t ever wake up.”
This life-changing event has Smith reaching out to everyone she knows about the importance of a carbon monoxide alarm.
“This experience has definitely been a reality check,” Smith says. “I just want families to know that having this system is a necessity in life.”