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Helena firefighters: Pool heater issue caused carbon monoxide exposure at hotel

Posted at 2:21 PM, Feb 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-07 21:06:30-05

HELENA — Helena Fire Department officials say it appears an issue with a gas-fired heater led to a significant carbon monoxide exposure at a hotel Thursday evening.

Authorities evacuated Jorgenson’s Inn and Suites for several hours. HFD Battalion Chief Neil Koehler said a total of seven people were taken to the hospital.

He said those affected were doing well and expected to be released Friday.

Fire Marshal Lou Antonick said there was a “catastrophic failure” in the exhaust vent system of a pool heater.

“With that kind of a failure, it’s going to dump quite a bit of carbon monoxide exhaust into the air, which is going to begin to filter through the whole building,” he said.

About four rooms were occupied at the time of the incident.

Once firefighters got the issue under control, they took several hours to make sure the air had circulated out before reopening the hotel.

Koehler said they also checked and found low levels of carbon monoxide in the nearby Vista Square Apartments.

In addition to the HFD, St. Peter’s Ambulance and Northwestern Energy also responded to the incident.

The signs of carbon monoxide exposure can include nausea, tiredness and other flu-like symptoms.

Leaders say it is a particularly prevalent concern in cold-weather areas like Montana.

Antonick said this incident is an important reminder that fuel-burning appliances should be inspected on an annual basis and cleaned regularly – and that people need to have carbon monoxide detectors on every level of their homes and in commercial buildings.

“Inside of our homes, anywhere there’s a fuel-burning appliance, we need detection in place – because it’s colorless and odorless, and people aren’t going to know until it’s too late,” he said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has more information about the dangers of carbon monoxide on their website, including the following.

How can I prevent CO poisoning in my home?

  • Install a battery-operated or battery back-up CO detector in your home and check or replace the battery when you change the time on your clocks each spring and fall. Place your detector where it will wake you up if it alarms, such as outside your bedroom. Consider buying a detector with a digital readout. This detector can tell you the highest level of CO concentration in your home in addition to alarming. Replace your CO detector every five years.
  • Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Do not use portable flameless chemical heaters indoors.
  • If you smell an odor from your gas refrigerator have an expert service it. An odor from your gas refrigerator can mean it could be leaking CO.
  • When you buy gas equipment, buy only equipment carrying the seal of a national testing agency, such as Underwriters’ Laboratories.
  • Make sure your gas appliances are vented properly. Horizontal vent pipes for appliances, such as a water heater, should go up slightly as they go toward outdoors, as shown below. This prevents CO from leaking if the joints or pipes aren’t fitted tightly.
  • Have your chimney checked or cleaned every year. Chimneys can be blocked by debris. This can cause CO to build up inside your home or cabin.
  • Never patch a vent pipe with tape, gum, or something else. This kind of patch can make CO build up in your home, cabin, or camper.
  • Never use a gas range or oven for heating. Using a gas range or oven for heating can cause a build up of CO inside your home, cabin, or camper.
  • Never burn charcoal indoors. Burning charcoal – red, gray, black, or white – gives off CO.
  • Never use a portable gas camp stove indoors. Using a gas camp stove indoors can cause CO to build up inside your home, cabin, or camper.
  • Never use a generator inside your home, basement, or garage or less than 20 feet from any window, door, or vent.
  • When using a generator, use a battery-powered or battery backup CO detector in your home.