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Tamper-resistant CO detectors could improve safety

Fire Inspector John Prendergast plugs in a CO2 detector at the Fire Station on Tower Avenue on Monday morning. Jed Carlson /

The Superior City Council is set to vote on a new carbon monoxide detector ordinance during tonight's meeting.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced when fuel is burned. And it's a killer.

Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Barely a week ago three people, including a 4-year-old boy, were found dead from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning at a home in Sawyer County.

"It's colorless and odorless," said John Prendergast, a fire inspector with the Superior Fire Department. "You're not going to know it's there without a detector."

Wisconsin state law requires that all dwellings or mobile homes with a fuel-burning appliance or an attached garage have carbon monoxide detectors installed in the basement and on each floor of the dwelling. More detectors may be required in larger buildings, depending on where fuel-burning appliances are located.

The new city ordinance, proposed by Superior landlord John Mahan, would add the requirement that detectors with 10-year non-replaceable, non-removable batteries be installed in rental property.

"The main reason this was needed is tenants remove the batteries, putting themselves and loved ones, and tenants in other apartments at risk," said Marty Curtiss, chairman of the Superior Landlord Association Program.

Under the present system, Mahan said, landlords feel that they get blamed if a detector does not work, even if it was the tenant who took the batteries out.

He calls this a "win-win-win" ordinance for all parties. Tenants would be safer because the batteries cannot be removed. The landlords would pay more up-front for the detectors, but save money in annual labor and battery costs. The fire department would win because the buildings will be safer. It could even lead to more cordial relationships.

"The ordinance will prevent a source of conflict between landlords and the fire department, which is naturally an adversarial relationship between an enforcement agency and those being regulated," Mahan said.

Landlords would have until Jan. 1, 2025, to phase in the 10-year tamper-proof detectors under the proposed ordinance.

"This should pass and I support it," said Craig Sutherland, who represents the city's 8th District. "When it comes to tenants' safety, there should be absolutely no argument."

A similar ordinance for smoke detectors went into effect in Superior in 2000, giving landlords until 2008 to phase the 10-year tamper-proof units in.

Many landlords were resistant at first, Prendergast said, but most came to realize the benefits of the 10-year sealed units.

"I will admit that when the original smoke detector ordinance was passed, I was not a fan of it," Mahan said. "I thought it was typical government overreach. I am now an advocate of the sealed smoke detector ordinance."

He said that ordinance has eliminated most of the problems stemming from batteries being taken out of smoke detectors.

When Mahan learned that carbon monoxide detectors are now available with 10-year tamper-proof batteries, he applied the same logic to those units.

The proposed ordinance also outlines where the units can and can't be placed, and levies penalties for anyone who tampers, removes, destroys, disconnects or removes batteries from an installed carbon monoxide detector.

A first offense carries a maximum penalty of nine months of imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000. A second offense would be considered a felony.

The ordinance would put people's safety first, Sutherland said.

"We will all be happy if it saves one life," Curtiss said.

CO safety

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. They are often described as "flu-like," according to the CDC.

The CDC encourages residents to install carbon monoxide detectors in their homes and check or replace the battery every spring and fall when they change the clocks for daylight savings time.