First hand tale of a family saved by Nicole's Law

In 2005, Governor Mitt Romney signed into law legislation that requires carbon monoxide detectors in all homes with potential sources of carbon monoxide – those with fossil-fuel burning equipment or enclosed parking areas. It is better known as Nicole's Law, in remembrance of 7-year old Nicole Garofalo, who died on January 28, 2005 after her Plymouth home was filled with deadly amounts of carbon monoxide on January 24. The furnace vents had been blocked by snow during a power outage.

Details of this law can be found on the state's web site located here.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that results from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels such gas, propane, oil, wood, coal, and gasoline. Being colorless and odorless makes it impossible to detect without the aid of a detector. Carbon monoxide detectors are available in most hardware stores and larger department stores. It is vital that you install carbon monoxide detectors and maintain fresh batteries in them as well.

This information was well publicized a few years back. Recent events made this something I had to highlight once again.

In November of 2001, my wife and I bought a home that needed an extensive amount of work before we could move in. In addition to needing a new heating system, the electrical service was out of date and in need of upgrading. My electrician replaced all of the electrical service and recommended a "Gen-Tran" (Generator Transfer) switch be installed at the main breaker panel to facilitate a generator hook-up in the event of a power failure. Even though I wasn't ready to spend the money on a generator, with our reliance on an electric pump for our well water, I thought it was a good idea to at least have the switch installed. I figured I could always buy the generator later on.

Over the next 10 years through several brief power outages caused by snow storms I would often hear my wife say things like "remind me again why we have a Gen-Tran switch and no generator". Once our children were no longer infants I didn't see the great urgency to have a generator, as we never lost power for an entire 24 hour period in the last ten years.

Then came Tropical Storm Irene. While I fully expected to lose power, I never thought we'd be in the dark for so long. The storm took out our power early on Sunday afternoon. Sunday night, as my wife and I sat up reading our books by the light of a portable lantern, I could hear the gentle whirring of the generator powering the house across the street. I was jealous.

On Monday morning, I began hearing rumors of power not being restored to our area until the following weekend. I began picturing the poor people of central Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire during the ice storm of December 2008 and I thought about my wife. My wife likes a good snowstorm as much as anybody, but when it comes to losing power, she's good for about 2 hours. Her idea of roughing it is sleeping in a hotel that doesn't have wi-fi. No lie, she has a coffee mug that says "I love not camping".

I bit the bullet, called my electrician, asking him to hook us up with a new generator. By the time I arrived home from work around 6:30, the truck was in the driveway and they were hooking us up with a new industrial grade 7,500 watt generator that would have made Tim "The Tool-Man" Taylor grunt for an hour. A few minutes later, with the generator running, they threw the Gen-Tran switch and the house came to life. The kitchens and baths lit up. Lights in the bedrooms came on. The refrigerator kicked on and the water was flowing. We were back up and running!

One of the things I wanted to find out about my new generator was how long it would run on a tank of gas. The next day I topped off the gas and let it run all day. When I got home that night, it was a solid 13 hours since I had topped it off in the morning and it was still running. It ran 12 plus hours on a tank. That's all I needed to know. I topped it off again and then made a move I would later regret.

During the ice storm of 2008, generators were hard to come by. People actually resorted to stealing generators right out of driveways while they were powering their home. With that in mind, I wanted to obscure my generator from sight from the street. On either side of our 2 car-under garage, there are stone retaining walls. I wheeled the generator into the corner of the driveway between the garage door and the retaining wall. In that spot, it could not be seen from the street. I also parked my wife's SUV and my truck in a fashion that would make it impossible for someone to wheel the generator out of that area. With the generator secure, I went in for the night.

You can probably guess what happened next. At about 1:00 am on Wednesday morning, we awoke to a beeping sound. We kept hearing four short beeps and we couldn't tell where from. I figured it was a smoke detector that needed batteries changed. Finally I found the source of the noise. It was a carbon monoxide detector that had been neatly stored in a dresser drawer in the guest bedroom down the hall. We purchased the detector when Nicole's Law went into effect, after all the publicity of the dangers of carbon monoxide. I had left the detector on the top of a bureau in the guest bedroom some years ago with the good intention of permanently installing it on the ceiling in the hall. As things happen in life, I forgot about it. Later, thinking it was an extra smoke detector, my wife put it in a drawer while cleaning the room and that was the last time the detector ever saw daylight.

Thinking the detector needed new batteries, I promptly changed the batteries and left the detector out in the hallway, just in case it was actually sensing CO. About 20 minutes later, just as I was about to doze off again, the detector chirped out again. This time we knew it was for real. We quickly got up, opened the windows in the house, woke the kids and got them outside. Thinking that the CO must be coming from the generator, I moved it as far from the house as the cable would allow. Next, I called the Fire Department to ask if I need to do anything else. Of course they told us to leave the house and said they'd be right down.

The last thing I wanted to do was create a spectacle in the neighborhood at 1:30 in the morning, but it was too late now. They came. They ALL came. I believe there were about 4 fire trucks, a police cruiser, an SUV and an ambulance. Fortunately, they didn't uses sirens, but they lit the place up like Gillette Stadium on a Monday Night Football Game.

No less than six firemen entered the house with gas masks on and carbon monoxide detectors. Meanwhile, they took all of us into the ambulance to be checked for Carbon Monoxide in our blood. Both my wife and my 5 year old son showed elevated levels of CO. When the firemen came out of the house, they said they had high readings throughout the house and a very high amount in the area outside the garage doors between the stone retaining walls. They then told me that it was a good thing we had a detector in the house, and it was a good thing we called them. Had we ignored the alarm, none of us would have made it through the night.

The fireman said that the stone retaining walls, in coordination with the garage doors, actually trapped the poisonous gas and prevented any breeze from dissipating it. With that gas trapped up against the side of the house, any breeze we did have worked to suck the gas into the house through the smallest opening under the garage door and through a window air conditioner on the next floor up.

Looking back, it's easy to see that placing the generator so close to the home was a huge mistake. Furthermore, there was no need to run the generator through the night. The only reason to run it was for the food in the fridge. Had I thought better, I would have used my large cooler and packed all the perishables in the cooler with ice. There was no need to power the fridge and freezer 24/7, but you know what they say about hindsight.

In then end, it's accurate to say that in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, August 31st, the lives of an entire family were saved by Nicole's Law. I thank the Fire and EMS personnel who responded that night and I thank the family of Nicole Garofalo and Governor Mitt Romney for pushing for and enacting such an important law. I'm only sorry that Nicole's life could not have been saved by such a simple device as a carbon monoxide detector.

If you haven't installed carbon monoxide detectors I strongly urge you to do so.

  • -Christopher W.Fitts
  • Vice President
  • Fitts Insurance Agency, Inc.