Call to check carbon monoxide detector turns into lifesaving reminder as cooler weather prompts heating season to begin

The month of October brings with it a change in temperature that results in a switch from cooling to heating in all local homes.

October also holds the annual observance of National Fire Prevention Week, but the combination of that change in seasons and honoring firefighters should also serve as a reminder of another alarm local fire crews often respond to, that being the sounding of carbon monoxide detectors.

One such call responded to just over a month ago by the Waukon Fire Department served as a staunch reminder of the stealthy impact of the colorless, odorless carbon monoxide gas that claims the lives of more than 400 people in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That early September call resulted in some lessons learned by all involved, as well as some diligence and lifesaving action that prevented a Waukon woman from being added to those annual CDC statistics.

Tuesday, September 3 was the day after the Labor Day weekend, and Karen Mahr of Waukon was packing up boxes in preparation for a move to a home she had recently purchased from a four-plex condominium facility she had been renting. She began to develop a headache and “did not feel well” overall, but chalked it up to a long holiday weekend on the river and the labor-intensive effort of packing and moving boxes.

Late that morning she could hear her carbon monoxide detector in the basement sounding, and based on her own previous experience with a similar situation earlier in the spring she changed the batteries in that basement detector. That initial change of batteries did not stop the detector from sounding, but a second set of new batteries finally stopped the alarm.

“I had a similar situation earlier in the spring, where my carbon monoxide detector was going off,” Mahr said. “It was plugged into the electrical outlet, but as it turned out the back-up batteries had died, so it was letting me know. I thought this was the same situation, but it took a second set of new batteries to make it stop this time. Thinking back, it was probably a case where the air in the basement had been moved around enough when I changed to that second set of batteries that the detector wasn’t able to read it again right away.”

With her headache not going away, Mahr decided in the early afternoon to take a break from her packing and lay down for a bit. Much to her good fortune, she was abruptly awakened by the sounding of a second carbon monoxide detector that was upstairs in her residence.

“I remember I fell asleep pretty quickly, and I remember being woken up by the sound of my upstairs detector,” Mahr shared.

Having previous acquaintance through her own former fire department and EMT involvement while living in Harpers Ferry, as well as being co-workers at Veterans Memorial Hospital in Waukon, Mahr decided to call Waukon Fire Chief Dave Martin to see what she should do now that two different detectors had sounded.

“I hated to call him, but he had helped me out with my previous detector problem,” Mahr shared. “He advised that the gas company should be called, but he was just going to be getting off work so he said he would stop up and take a look as well.”

Meanwhile, as Chief Martin was arriving at Mahr’s residence, another neighbor within that condominium four-plex had been checking on the cats for a third neighbor in that same four-plex who happened to be in the hospital at the time. When she opened the door to the neighboring residence, she could hear a detector alarm sounding, so she called 9-1-1 to report the alarm.

Chief Martin admitted that he figured that Mahr’s call was likely the same as many of the other calls local fire crews respond to where carbon monoxide detectors are malfunctioning either due to age or bad battery situations. But he had grabbed one of his fire department’s detection meters and headed to the Fourth Street SE four-plex.

To the good fortune of all involved, Chief Martin’s willingness to help a friend and co-worker in his line of duty went far beyond the benefit of just Mahr. As he entered Mahr’s residence, the detection meter “went crazy,” he said, signifying a heavy presence of carbon monoxide.

Once Chief Martin had heard the 9-1-1 page come over his fire radio from the previously mentioned neighbor’s call, he alerted his fellow responding department members of the “confirmed CO presence” in the residence, advising them to “pack up” with their air tanks and masks when responding.

Chief Martin then went about the task of evacuating the entire four-plex facility, first confirming with the adjacent neighbor that her living unit and the unit she was checking on for the hospitalized four-plex neighbor were both empty. With Mahr already outside of her unit, that left just one unit where 87-year-old Margaret Halverson resided.

Chief Martin approached Halverson’s front door, first knocking and then trying the door knob while announcing his presence as a member of the Waukon Fire Department. With no answer, he was gratefully surprised to find the front door unlocked and he entered, only to find Halverson sitting in her recliner unresponsive to any of his interaction.

“Her body was limp, and she was not responding to any of my attempts to wake her up,” he said.

He quickly began to maneuver the recliner she was in toward the open front door, getting some assistance from arriving fellow firefighting volunteers in getting Halverson outside. A quick check of her pulse did not yield any results, and he began CPR compressions with Halverson lying in the front yard.

Mahr was shocked at seeing her neighbor being tended to in the front yard. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what happened to Margaret?’,” Mahr said. “Dave told me he couldn’t find a pulse, and when I tried I couldn’t find one either.”

Fortunately, it only took around 30 chest compressions for Halverson to come around. She was then given oxygen and prepped for transport to Veterans Memorial Hospital.

Mary Jo Meyer of Waukon, one of Halverson’s daughters and also an employee of Veterans Memorial Hospital, was contacted and told to meet her mother at the hospital emergency room. Not sure what to expect, Meyer said she was quite pleasantly surprised and relieved at what she saw when she arrived.

“I walked into the room and Mom was like, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’,” Meyer relayed. “Those who rode in the ambulance with her were amazed at how this 87-year-old woman bounced back from something like that. She was talking and alert on the ride, and she’s been doing fine ever since, and we owe it all to some good neighbors and the great members of our fire and ambulance services.”

Meyer said her mother stayed at Veterans Memorial Hospital for several days following the incident for further observation, grateful for her mother to receive all the care she needed at the local hospital. “That was such a blessing for us to have Mom be able to receive all her care here locally,” she shared. “I can’t imagine how difficult that would have been if we had to make trips to and from La Crosse or Rochester during her stay. We are so fortunate to have a facility like this right here in our hometown.”

Meyer also shared what had been the cause of all that had transpired during that shocking yet enlightening day. She said her mother had made her usual morning trip to Hardee’s for coffee and returned home as she’s always done for so many years.

Upon Halverson’s return, she pulled her car into her garage and then quickly shut the garage door to prevent any bees from entering her garage that had built a nest just outside the garage door. In her haste to shut the garage door and get into her home through the garage entrance, Halverson did not realize that she had not shut off her car, that running car in her confined garage becoming the source of what could have claimed her own life if not for the timely actions of so many others.

“She got distracted; she didn’t want those bees to get into her garage or house,” Meyer explained.

Continuing to go about her day, Meyer said her mother recalled feeling a bit fatigued later that day, putting off her usual afternoon bathing routine to sit down and rest in that recliner where she was found unresponsive several hours later. Although no one can pinpoint exactly how long Halverson’s car ran in the garage, it did eventually “choke itself out,” according to Chief Martin, ultimately quitting due to lack of fresh air required by engines to properly function.

Chief Martin said the airtight construction of condominium facilities such as what Halverson shares doesn’t allow for a great deal of ventilation for gases like carbon monoxide to escape. He noted that the central location of the garage units of that four-plex facility resulted in the carbon monoxide filtering into all the adjacent living units, causing the detector alarms to sound in both Mahr’s unit and the other vacant unit.

Mahr also noted that she learned even more about the carbon monoxide gas itself that day. “It’s heavier than air, so that’s why the detector in my basement was going off first because it had sunk down to that lowest level,” she said. “That’s why they recommend having detectors placed as low as possible.”

While Halverson was being transported and admitted into Veterans Memorial Hospital, the local firefighting crew took on the task of ventilating all four units of the condominium, opening doors and windows and circulating air with fans. That ventilation process took several hours to get the carbon monoxide readings below acceptable levels to where residents could again occupy the residences. The cats, by the way, that were in the temporarily vacant unit being checked on also survived the incident.

With Halverson’s condominium unit being vacant for longer than those several hours due to her hospital stay, Meyer said they took that opportunity to check the furnace unit in her mother’s place of residence in anticipation of the upcoming heating season. Adding a further sense of good fortune to this entire tale, Meyer said a crack was found in the furnace unit that would likely have emitted additional carbon monoxide gas once the furnace was put into full operation.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Meyer said. “We could have gone through this whole scenario again had we not had the furnace checked. So, make sure to have your furnaces checked before they start running full-time in the winter.”

With that winter weather approaching, Chief Martin also warned against leaving vehicles running inside garages to warm them up, even if the garage door is left open. “Those fumes are more often than not being blown right back into the garage,” he advised. “You should always have your vehicle backed completely out of the garage if you’re going to leave it running to warm up.”

Meyer said she also can’t stress enough the importance of becoming educated in CPR. “It’s so much simpler than it ever used to be with the hands-only compressions nowadays,” she said. “You never know when it might come into play. Mom was fortunate to have someone like Dave and Karen, who have both had EMT training, there to help her, but just a short CPR course could be enough to make a difference between someone living or not.”

Meyer also says she can’t thank everyone enough who was involved, especially Chief Martin and Mahr, who were first to tend to her mother’s immediate health needs. “I am truly thankful for Dave and Karen and the action they took that ultimately kept Mom here to talk about it,” she said. “Our family is so grateful for everyone involved that helped prevent this from being so much worse than it was.”

The Waukon Fire Department, Veterans Memorial Hospital ambulance, emergency room and medical staff, the Waukon Police Department, the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department and Black Hills Energy all assisted at the scene of the incident.

Chief Martin acknowledged that there were many pieces of the puzzle that had to fall into place in order for the situation to turn out as well as it did. “From Karen making that initial phone call, to the other neighbor calling 9-1-1, to that front door being unlocked at that particular moment,” he noted. “It all had to come together just right, or who knows how much difference another minute or two may have made.”

In addition to the importance of carbon monoxide detectors and keeping them operational, as well as the response and CPR impact that were all part of the enlightenment gained from this experience, Chief Martin said he has also used it as a learning experience for his own fire crew volunteers.

“I think we’d all agree that when so many of these detector calls turn out to be false alarms that just require new batteries or upgraded detectors, we can sometimes end up being a little less urgent in our response,” he explained on behalf of his fellow volunteers. “This call just reinforces with us that you can never be too sure what’s actually going on, so you never want to become complacent and take anything for granted.”

Meyer said she will likely never take for granted again the importance of carbon monoxide detectors. “I went out and bought new ones for my family and for all four of those condo units,” she said. “It’s not something you ever really think about, but I obviously realize now how important they can be in saving a person’s life.”

Chief Martin further advised that detectors that have done their job in alerting the presence of carbon monoxide need to be immediately replaced following such an incident. He also said detectors that may never be activated should still be replaced every five to six years, with most detectors having a manufacture date listed on the back.

Additional safety and prevention tips regarding carbon monoxide, along with symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, can be found in the sidebar article in the shaded box accompanying this article.