A carbon monoxide detector is one of the simplest, most straightforward pieces of safety equipment in any building. And detectors are proven to save lives.
So why aren’t they required equipment for all of the state’s elementary, middle and high school buildings?
“It’s extremely frustrating because this is really a no-brainer,” said Douglas fire Chief Kent Vinson, who has been on a crusade to require detectors in state schools since 2014 when a malfunctioning boiler in a Douglas town building caused a CO leak that sickened kindergarten students.
If you think the sight of a group of 5- and 6-year-olds in danger would prompt the lawmakers to act, well, you’d be mistaken.
Each year, laws are proposed that would make CO detectors mandatory in state schools. And each year, those proposals are allowed to die quietly in committee.
“And it’s obviously political, which is sad,” Vinson told Statehouse reporter Christian M. Wade, “because we’re trying to protect children.”
The issue came to the fore in late January in Marblehead, when a malfunctioning heating system leaked, sickening two custodians and sparking a schoolwide evacuation.
While there were CO detectors in that school — detectors that were not working, for some reason — parents across the district were surprised to learn that not all schools had the equipment. The town’s new, $56 million high school had only one — in the boiler room.
Interim Superintendent William McAlduff, in a note to parents, noted they are not required by law.
It would be one thing if a carbon monoxide leak were a rare a occurrence. But CO poisoning kills about 500 people a year, and is the second most common form of nonmedical poisoning in the United States. The odorless gas can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and confusion in people exposed to it, and in high concentrations can be a killer.
The state obviously knows this. You can’t build or sell a house without functioning CO detectors. And the Massachusetts School Building Authority mandates that new or partially renovated schools install CO detectors.
If your child goes to school in an older building, however, you may be out of luck. A recent survey of school districts across Essex County by North of Boston Media Group revealed a wide range of responses. Peabody has detectors in all of their school buildings; Salem doesn’t have detectors at all, but is gauging costs of adding some. None of the Gloucester schools have carbon monoxide detectors, though Superintendent Richard Safier said the district is buying some for the schools’ boiler rooms.
Cost is an issue for many districts, according to Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. Everybody wants detectors, he said, but have trouble coming up with tens of thousands of dollars for a hardwired system.
“The issue isn’t really that we should do this, but who is going to pay the bill?” Scott said.
To be frank, cost shouldn’t be an issue here. CO detectors are proven lifesavers, and are widely accepted as required safety equipment almost everywhere but schools. Fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems are expensive, too, and they’re not optional.
And not every district is using cost as an excuse. After the Marblehead scare, Matt Bennett, director of facilities for the Amesbury School District, bought smaller detectors for all of its schools — at a cost of about $210.
We are confident that working together, school leaders and state lawmakers can come up with a solution that helps ensure the safety of the state’s children and costs somewhere between $200 and tens of thousands of dollars.
State Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, supports a statewide requirement for schools but said the state should help pay the cost, which seems to be a reasonable approach.
“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.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this editorial included outdated information about the Triton Regional School District. The district has functioning CO detectors in all schools, in all locations with combustible equipment, including boiler rooms and kitchens. Pine Grove Elementary School in Rowley is fully updated with hard-wired CO detectors in all roof top units and locations as required by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.