Baltimore schools to get carbon monoxide detectors

All schools will have the alarms within a month, officials say

February 16, 2011|By Scott Calvert, Erica L. Green and Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore will place carbon monoxide detectors in all of its approximately 200 schools over the next month after two potentially deadly exposures occurred at the same school, officials announced Wednesday.

The first 35 battery-powered detectors, which wholesale for $15 each, will be installed within a week at schools that have the same type of oven equipment identified as the source of Tuesday's exposure at Dickey Hill Elementary/Middle School.

"The safety of our children comes first," city schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said.

The plan materialized Wednesday in conversations among officials from the school system, the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management and the city fire marshal.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake supports installing the detectors in schools, according to her spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty. Speaking Wednesday at the Board of Estimates, she expressed a desire for the school system to work with the Fire Department on the issue, he said.

House-Foster said the two incidents at the school show "how the age of our buildings and equipment poses a range of challenges, and all these challenges underscore the need to upgrade our facilities in a major way."

The cost of installing detectors systemwide could be as low as $4,500, assuming 300 are installed, and the tab could be covered by the city's Office of Emergency Management, director Robert Maloney said. Still to be determined is how many detectors will be installed at each school, which will affect the total cost.

"We're going to put our heads together and figure out how we can buy them quickly and get them installed," Maloney said.

The city's fire marshal, Deputy Chief Raymond Obrocki, said it makes sense to install the detectors near potential sources of carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas that when inhaled can cause nausea, headaches and even death.

"Obviously nobody can afford to put one in every single room in a school, and I think that would be overkill," Obrocki said. "All you'd need to do is put one beside each fossil-fuel-burning piece of equipment — furnaces, water heaters, anything that could be a generator of CO."

Tuesday at Dickey Hill, six students complained of illness and 40 other people were possibly exposed to carbon monoxide. A child who complained of abdominal pain was taken to Sinai Hospital, but his condition was not life-threatening, said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman.

The source of the gas was a convection and steam oven used to prepare food.

The school, in the Wakefield neighborhood, was the site of another carbon monoxide exposure a week earlier, that one caused by a malfunctioning steam table used to heat food in the cafeteria kitchen.

On Wednesday afternoon, parents and guardians of Dickey Hill students shared their apprehension. McKinley Watson III was so worried about the carbon monoxide problem that he couldn't sleep.

The father of a first-grader and a fourth-grader works nights and usually goes to bed after dropping them off in the morning — but not Wednesday. "I kept feeling like they were going to call at any moment" to say that the school was closed, he said.

After the Feb. 8 incident, he waited more than half an hour to see if classes would resume. On Tuesday, he and his children arrived just before fire and emergency personnel and decided to leave. "I said, 'Do I really want to take a chance?'" Watson said.

He asked a faculty member if the school had carbon monoxide detectors and was unhappy to hear they did not. "I think our kids' safety is a lot more important," Watson said. "I don't think it's an outlandish cost. What's going to be the deciding factor?"

Cecelia Coffey, who was picking up her great-grandson, Elijah Berry, said she too was a little worried.

"The building is old, and something needs to be done," she said. "It's [school officials'] responsibility to be sure schools are safe."

Larry Kane said he wasn't concerned about his son, second-grader Meleak, returning to school on Wednesday — until he learned from a reporter that the school wasn't equipped with detectors. "That is a concern," he said. "I'd have thought that's the No. 1 place you would have them."

"I was shocked," said Cierra Sparrow, whose son Evan is in pre-kindergarten. "You have them in your homes. Why don't they have them in schools?"

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the council's education committee, said the back-to-back evacuations at Dickey Hill alerted her to the danger of not having carbon monoxide monitors in schools.

"It was daunting to me that these schools are potential sources of this poisoning," Clarke said. "I hadn't ever thought of it."

Clarke said the first incident Feb. 8 concerned her, but "the second time around, I was like, 'Wait a minute. How can we prevent this from happening there and elsewhere?' We had to do something, because it could happen anywhere."

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