As she does most evenings, Marjorie Harbo put on her pajamas the other night at her home in Essex and settled down on the couch to watch TV with her 2-year-old son, Adam.
That's when the carbon monoxide alarm went off. She ran outside with her son.
"The Fire Department told me when they came that if the alarm hadn't worked we'd be dead," Harbo said the next day, still shaken from the ordeal. She and Adam appeared not to have been harmed by the fumes.
The problem was traced to a faulty, corroded water heater, she said, and a maintenance worker knocked a hole in a wall to help ventilate the area and prevent a recurrence.
But Harbo and other residents of the Cove Village Townhomes say they are tired of the seemingly endless run of carbon monoxide scares at the complex and want something done about what they say are the aging or inefficient appliances that seem to be causing the problem.
In the last month alone, the Baltimore County Fire Department has been called to Cove Village on 20 occasions in response to carbon monoxide alarms, according to Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for the department.
The residents' concerns are heightened by their memory of the deaths three years ago of a 48-year-old man and his two stepdaughters, aged 14 and 15, after inhaling carbon monoxide in their Cove Village home. Police said an investigation showed that a vent leading from a water heater was misaligned, which could have caused a release of deadly fumes into the family's rented house on High Seas Court.
Carbon monoxide alarms were installed throughout the complex after that incident.
"We, more than anyone else, want to make sure we don't have these" incidents, said Chris Davis, the safety director for Sawyer Realty Holdings, the company that manages Cove Village and some 30 other housing communities in Baltimore and Prince George's counties. "We don't hesitate to remove or replace an appliance if we feel that it's a cause for concern. It's not a matter of trying to get another month or a year out of a stove."
Davis said that most of the recent carbon monoxide scares had been false alarms, with no detectable levels of the gas - or very low ones. As a result, he said, maintenance workers are in the process of replacing all the alarms, under the assumption that some were simply malfunctioning.
"It's frustrating for us," Davis said. Sometimes, he added, carbon-monoxide alarms are set off when food or other detritus blocks burners on stove tops, or when people store things near hot-water heaters, preventing them from ventilating properly and causing a buildup of fumes.
The 299-unit complex off Back River Neck Road advertises itself as "an affordable waterfront community with beautiful landscaping, playground and much, much more." A promotional brochure says each unit is "a wonderful townhome featuring plush wall-to-wall carpeting" and describes "private" patios, "huge bedroom closets" and "a unique skylight feature in the bathroom."
The townhouses, built in the 1970s, are modest, and many show clear signs of age. The "beautiful landscaping" amounts, for the most part, to mowed grass, patchy from summer heat. One-bedroom units of 600 square feet rent for $605 a month, while a three-bedroom, 840-square-foot space goes for $865, according to the brochure. Many of the residents say they receive Section 8 federal housing assistance.
Interviews with almost a dozen Cove Village residents confirmed the prevalent fear of carbon monoxide, with one woman saying the situation was "terrible" and another saying she feared she would be evicted if she spoke out publicly.
A resident named Bob - he would provide only his first name because he did not want "trouble" with the landlord - said there had been "a lot of excitement around here" Wednesday night, after Harbo's alarm went off. He said large fans were set up to "blow the air out of her house" while Harbo and her son were checked by paramedics.
Bob, who retired from his job at Martin State Airport in 1992 and moved to Cove Village 2 1/2 years ago, said he was not concerned about the carbon monoxide. "Why should it worry me?" he said.
On Tuesday, fire officials and representatives of the complex held a meeting at the Middleborough Volunteer Fire Company nearby to educate Cove Village residents as to the perils of carbon monoxide - often referred to as CO - but only five people showed up, Armacost said.
"I find that disappointing, given the level of concern," she said. Carbon monoxide, she added, "can kill you before you know it's there."
As a result of the unusual amount of CO-related calls at Cove Village, county emergency officials decided this week to increase the attention given to such incidents. Yesterday, John Hohman, the Baltimore County fire chief, sent out a notice to fire stations saying that any CO calls will be followed by a response from inspectors at the Department of Permits and Development Management, which handles code enforcement. This is similar to what occurs when, for instance, a vehicle crashes into a building and renders it potentially unsafe.
"There's been a lot of leaks here," said Claudius Benson, 10, who lives in Cove Village with his family. "We see a lot of firetrucks - that's the only way I find out. It gets me scared so I can't come outside."
Under the shade of a tree on Landmark Court, Mike Johnson chatted about the carbon monoxide problem with a pair of friends. "That's nothing to play with," said Johnson, 23. "You don't want to breathe that."