St. Joseph County, IN – Portable CO monitors likely saved a life in St. Joseph Co.

You can’t see it or smell it, but carbon monoxide can kill you. Around 170 people die each year in the United States from carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But now at least three area fire departments have a tool to help fight the so-called “invisible killer” and this week, it likely saved a life.

Clay Fire Territory recently got eight small carbon monoxide detectors through a homeland security grant. Less than a week after clipping them onto the medical bags they carry into calls, it went off.

Fire Capt. Chad Hess remembers what, at first, appeared to be a typical Tuesday call.

“Close to 9 in the morning we responded for a male with chest pains, which is pretty routine,” he recalled.

But when Hess and his crew stepped into a home just a few blocks from their fire station on Cleveland Road, their new carbon monoxide detector lit up.

Hess instructed another firefighter to retrieve a different gas detector off the fire engine to confirm. That detector showed a carbon monoxide reading higher than 400 parts per million.

Clay Fire’s policy is to evacuate a home with CO levels of 35 parts per million or higher. At 200 ppm, they put on the same type of breathing equipment they would use to go inside a burning building. And 400 ppm can be life threatening after a few hours of exposure.

“[The initial detector on our bags] started to trigger us to think that maybe [carbon monoxide] was the cause of these chest pains,” Hess added.

The patient’s wife told firefighters she wasn’t feeling well either, but thought it was just nerves because her husband was ill. But then, she informed them a third person lives in the basement of the home.

Crews found that person unresponsive and immediately took him outside to an ambulance, eventually transporting all three patients to the hospital.

“If this was a typical call without the detector attached to our bag, we would have transported that male [complaining of chest pain], I think that female probably would have followed us to the hospital and that other male probably would have been left in the basement,” Hess explained.

The concept behind the clip-on detectors is to ensure a safe environment for the responders and possibly identify a carbon monoxide incident, as crews did Tuesday. Malfunctioning gas appliances, inadequate venting of heating components, portable generators operating too close to living areas and vehicles operating inside garages are some of the most common causes of carbon monoxide incidents.

In this case, firefighters believed a malfunctioning furnace caused the high levels of carbon monoxide.

The home where it happened did not have a working carbon monoxide detector – something Hess said is just as important to have in your home as a smoke detector.

It’s also important to have yearly furnace inspections and also make sure your furnace vents are clear of bird’s nests or other debris.

The Penn Township and Warsaw Fire Departments have similar clip-on carbon monoxide monitors.