BOSTON — For years, Douglas Fire Chief Kent Vinson has traveled to Beacon Hill to warn lawmakers about the threat of carbon monoxide leaks in schools and government buildings.
Vinson has been pushing to update state laws on carbon monoxide detectors since 2014, when a malfunctioning boiler in a Douglas town complex caused a CO leak that sickened kindergarten students. The complex, which housed the Town Hall, police station and elementary school, didn't have CO detectors.
While Massachusetts requires homeowners to install carbon monoxide detectors, there's no such mandate for schools, commercial property or state and town government buildings. Year after year, Vinson has testified before lawmakers only to see bills requiring CO detectors wither before the end of each session.
"It's extremely frustrating because this is really a no-brainer," he said. "And it's obviously political, which is sad, because we're trying to protect children."
Similar legislation filed in the current two-year session, which has languished before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education, seems once again unlikely to be approved.
On Wednesday, the committee released a list of bills given more time for consideration through the end of the session Dec. 31. None of the CO mandate bills were included.
The lack of a statewide requirement for CO detectors in schools was highlighted by a recent incident at an elementary school in Marblehead, where a malfunctioning heating system caused a leak that prompted an evacuation. No students were injured but a pair of custodians were treated for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the school district.
Interim Superintendent William McAlduff said a hard-wired detector was installed at the school, but the system didn't work. In an email to parents explaining what happened, McAlduff revealed that not all of the town's schools have hard-wired CO detector systems — including the new $56 million high school. He noted that state law doesn't require it.
Carbon monoxide can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and confusion in people exposed to it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High concentrations will eventually cause loss of consciousness and death.
It's the second most common cause of nonmedicinal poisoning deaths, according to the CDC, killing nearly 500 people a year.
"Carbon monoxide is a silent killer," State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey said in an interview. "It's colorless, odorless, and something you won't pick up with your senses until it's too late."
Ostroskey said the state has made progress in improving carbon monoxide protection in schools, such as a new requirement by the Massachusetts School Building Authority that new or partially renovated schools install CO detectors. But there needs to be a statewide requirement that older schools and other public buildings install hard-wired systems, he said.
Exactly what has held up the proposals on Beacon Hill year after year isn't clear. There doesn't appear to be vocal opposition, and nobody has testified against the bills.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said his organization isn't standing in the way.
"It's a safety issue," he said. "From what I understand, most schools have them, and if they don't, they should."
He said a key issue for schools is the cost of installing hard-wired CO detector systems, which transmit a signal to the fire department when an alarm is triggered.
The high-tech systems can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and many cash-strapped school districts can't afford them, he said.
"The issue isn't really that we should do this, but who is going to pay the bill?" Scott said.
One of the more recent proposals, backed by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and others, would create a state trust fund to help school districts cover the costs. The proposal had a hearing before the education committee in July but hasn't moved since then.
Not giving up
Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, supports a statewide requirement for schools but said the state needs to ante up some money to help cover the costs.
"Firefighters and schools are concerned about this, and it all boils down to funding," she said. "But this is clearly a public safety issue and something that needs to be done."
Massachusetts has required CO detectors in homes since 2006 under "Nicole’s Law," named for 7-year-old Nicole Garofalo, who died when the outdoor vent for a propane fired boiler in her Plymouth home was blocked by snow, allowing carbon monoxide to accumulate inside.
The law requires only a battery operated or plug-in detector in most single-family homes; owners of large residential buildings must install hard-wired detectors.
Homeowners are required to certify that the property is protected before they sell it.
Only five states — Connecticut, Maine, California, Maryland and Illinois — require CO detectors in schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut requires them in public schools and government buildings, while Maryland requires them in newly built and remodeled schools and municipal buildings.
New Hampshire, which requires CO detectors in residential multiunit dwellings, rental units and attached garages, doesn't require the systems in schools or other public buildings.
Vinson said he hasn't given up the fight and will continue to pressure lawmakers to take action.
He said it's only a matter of time before there's a serious incident.
"We're not just talking about a couple kids — there's potential for a catastrophic loss of life," he said. "Hopefully, the state's leaders will wake up and do something about it before that happens."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.