Carbon monoxide alarms taking a toll on Aspen volunteer firefighters

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

Rick Balentine, fire chief and CEO of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, has been a volunteer firefighter since 1989. In his 25 years of service, Balentine has seen a distinct change in the types of calls the Aspen firefighters respond to.

“When I first became a volunteer firefighter, we just fought fires,” he said. “We didn’t do a lot of the things we do now. Now most of our calls are alarm calls. Carbon monoxide calls are the biggest thing we respond to by far.”

The Aspen Fire Department has a 100 percent volunteer firefighting staff. Balentine said the pressure of answering so many alarm calls is taking its toll on some of his volunteers, especially from the calls that come in the middle of the night.

“Fire Marshal Brian Nichols and I are trying to find ways to get those calls down,” Balentine said. “That’s going to potentially be the demise of our Volunteer Fire Department. We do so many of them at all hours. It really puts a strain on some of our volunteers.”

After the Lofgren family — a father, mother, son and daughter — died of carbon monoxide poisoning at an Aspen rental home over Thanksgiving break in 2008, there was a big push that mandated carbon monoxide alarms in new residences.

Since 2009, Colorado law requires homeowners and owners of rental property to install carbon monoxide alarms near the bedrooms of every home that is heated with fossil fuel, has a fuel-fired appliance, has a fireplace or has an attached garage.

Balentine said that in the first six months of 2014, the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department received 69 carbon monoxide alarm calls, with 57 being false alarms or malfunctioning detectors.

“I’m told it’s worse in our district because we have so many residences and second-home owners with monitored alarm systems,” Balentine said.

Deputy Fire Marshal Parker Lathrop said it doesn’t matter what the percentages are between real emergencies and false alarms.

“When we get a carbon monoxide call, we roll on every one we get,” Lathrop said. “Maybe only a small percentage are valid, but you can’t pick and choose. It doesn’t matter what time we get a call; we’ll show up.”

Balentine said there are several reasons for false alarms with carbon monoxide detectors. It could simply be that the units have a shelf life. As the units get older, they become more sensitive and cause more alarms.

Anne Marie Helmenstine has a Doctorate of Philosophy in biomedical sciences from the University of Tennessee. In an article written by Helmenstine for, she reports that the average life span of many carbon monoxide detectors is about two years. Helmenstine also notes that the “test” feature on many detectors checks the functioning of the alarm and not the status of the detector and warns that newer buildings may have more airtight construction and may be better insulated, which makes it easier for carbon monoxide to accumulate.

There’s also an educational aspect that Balentine said needs addressing. Most carbon monoxide alarms release a series of beeps and chirps to indicate when something needs to be addressed with the alarm.

For example, with a First Alert brand carbon monoxide detector, when the test/silence button is pressed or if there’s an actual carbon monoxide alert, the alarm will send out four beeps with pauses between. The power/alarm light also will flash continuously.

If there’s something wrong with the unit or it has reached the end of its effective life, a First Alert unit will chirp either three or five times, with the power/alarm light flashing in three or five intervals.

“We’re in the process of doing some public outreach right now on the difference in alarm sounds,” Balentine said. “We’re in discussions of doing a video we can put on our website to help people understand the different sounds from an alarm and how to interpret them.”

Balentine said that another factor is altitude and that some detectors aren’t as effective at high elevations.

“We’re in the process of setting up an alarm summit with the valley alarm companies in the next couple weeks to find a solution to all these alarm calls,” Balentine said. “Recently, we received a couple carbon monoxide alarm calls at 2 and 3 in the morning. We have six on-call teams of five or six volunteers that rotate per week to take calls. Those late-night calls can really burn them out because they also have regular jobs.”