CO restaurant death leads to new laws, but can industry do more?

A fire company president calls for digital displays of CO levels on system-connected detectors, but a manufacturer says other safeguards are already in place
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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

CENTEREACH, N.Y.—The death of a Long Island, N.Y. restaurant manager from carbon monoxide poisoning has prompted several Long Island communities to pass new CO requirements.

However, the president of a Long Island fire company also believes the industry should do more to alert the public to the danger of CO by adding more features to fire system-connected detectors, such as digital displays of ambient CO levels and low-level CO alerts. But a manufacturer says that could lead to false alarms and maintains that existing safeguards work well.

In April, the Suffolk County Legislature passed “The Steve Nelson Safety Act,” which requires installation of CO detectors at all county-owned facilities.

Nelson was the 55-year-old manager of a Legal Sea Foods restaurant located in Suffolk County. He died Feb. 22 after being overcome by the odorless, invisible gas and 26 other people were sickened. The cause was a leaky flue pipe in the water heater, according to news reports.

The restaurant didn’t have a CO detector because New York state law only requires them in homes and in commercial establishments where people sleep.

That’s why Long Island communities are toughening standards locally. In addition to Suffolk County, Hempstead, Brookhaven and Nassau County have approved new CO measures. In Nassau County, the law that passed in April requires carbon monoxide detectors in all new and existing commercial buildings in the county.

“Long Island has really been on the forefront of this,” Bob Williams, president of Briscoe Protective Systems, an engineered systems fire and security company based here, told Security Systems News.

He said he attended public hearings in the communities and spoke out in favor of the new laws. However, Williams added, “I did a lot of listening” to learn about concerns that municipal officials and the general public voiced. And he said he heard people asking for digital displays of CO levels on detectors so the public can be aware that the level of the gas is on the rise, even though it may not yet be at a dangerous point.

“That’s the awareness the public wants,” Williams said.

In the February incident at the Legal Sea Foods in Huntington Station, N.Y., the level of CO was so high that even rescue personnel felt dizzy when they arrived.

That kind of situation typically doesn’t happen instantly, Williams said. He said a low level of gas may be present for some time, making people feel ill, but because the symptoms of CO poisoning can mimic the flu, they often don’t suspect that CO is the cause.

Williams said that is why there should be “a display, even on the system detectors, so people will be able to see, like a thermostat, a gradual raising of CO” and remedy the problem before it become dangerous.

“I’m proposing that there should be an alert—not an alarm, but an alert—to let people know when [the CO level] is coming into an unacceptable range.”

He said the stand-alone CO alarms people can buy at hardware stores—which aren’t professionally monitored—have digital readings of CO levels, but he said he’s not aware of such displays on the detectors that connect to a fire alarm system.

Williams said the digital displays on the stand-alone CO alarms could lead people to choose that non-monitored option over a monitored detector, “which is not beneficial to our industry or the general public because [a stand-alone alarm] doesn’t notify a central station, it doesn’t notify a main control panel.”

By not adding digital displays to system-connected detectors, Williams said, “I think we’re hurting ourselves.”

However, System Sensor, a leading manufacturer of CO detectors, takes a different view. In a statement to SSN, that St. Charles, Ill.-based company said, “System Sensor is in favor of anything that enhances life safety. That said, let’s … separate digital displays from low-level alerts.”

When it comes to low-level CO alerts, the company said, “we have the capability to send pre-alarms—i.e., the presence of CO prior to it becoming a life threatening incident—to the control panel. At the present time, supervising stations do not have procedures in place for handling CO pre-alarms. Sending pre-alarms to supervising stations could result in a high level of false alarms.”

The company continued, “As designed today, carbon monoxide detectors will signal an alarm condition before a dangerous level of carbon monoxide would be harmful to an individual, while at the same time minimizing false alarms that might lead to someone disabling the device.”

As for digital displays, System Sensor said it doesn’t have such displays on its CO detectors and isn’t aware of any system-connected detectors that do.

However, the company said, “We are skeptical that end users would actually prefer a digital display.”

It continued: “Digital displays on CO detectors can provide some variability in their displays. Even the manufacturers of these products note that CO levels can change due to different events, many of which that may not be life threatening. CO detectors must alarm when appropriate.  The sound produced by the detector or alarm system and the added benefit of supervised detectors far outweighs the digital readout available.”

Also, System Sensor added, “We are skeptical that the end users would actively self-monitor CO levels. Most end users install alarms or detectors and assume they will alarm when appropriate. They are not actively monitoring CO levels unless there is an incident/alarm. It’s also worth noting that a Notifier [by Honeywell] panel can be used to query a multicriteria device known as IntelliQuad Plus at any time and provide an instantaneous read of the CO [parts per million] level. So, while it’s not a digital readout, it’s providing similar functionality while providing a superior level of CO, infrared, thermal or photoelectric smoke detection via a supervised device.”