Wells Sampson, vice president of American Alarm and Communications Inc., Arlington, Mass., visits the home of John Dunton and Carol McKeen, who averted carbon monoxide poisoning thanks to his company's security installation. PHOTO BY JOHN CROOKES FOR SDM

Ironically, it was a burglar alarm system rather than carbon monoxide (CO) detection that prompted homeowners John Dunton and Carol McKeen to contact American Alarm and Communications Inc., Arlington, Mass.

“We got the alarm more for security than anything else,” Dunton recounts. “We thought if somebody was breaking in, we wouldn’t have heard it in our bedroom. The bigger size of the house made us decide to get an alarm system.”

Keith Creamer, an integrated systems consultant for American Alarm, thought the size of the house with its new addition and new systems justified installation of monitored carbon monoxide detectors.

It was that suggestion that ended up saving Dunton and McKeen’s lives on Feb. 13, 2005, when their oil furnace turned on and began pumping carbon monoxide into their house because the tiles inside their chimney had fallen off and blocked the flue.

This life-saving event has earned American Alarm and Communications Inc., Arlington, Mass., the First Line of Defense Award, which is co-sponsored by SDM Magazine and the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA), Irving, Texas, of which American Alarm is a member.

“We’ve been selling all notification devices for quite a while including low temperature, moisture, natural gas and carbon monoxide, so this was one of a suite of products,” declares Wells Sampson, American Alarm’s vice president, about the addition of carbon monoxide detection.

He adds that carbon monoxide detection has been receiving a lot of attention in Massachusetts lately due to Nicole’s Law, a new state law named after a 7-year-old girl who died from carbon monoxide inhalation. The law now requires carbon monoxide detectors in all residential structures in the state with enclosed parking or heating equipment.

“It was a tragic story, and this past fall, demand certainly has been picking up because of all the local news,” Sampson concedes. “But most importantly, we had two additional lives saved in two separate cases this past fall as the heating season was kicking into gear.

“We had two other residences where the detector went off, we notified the homeowner and called the authorities and were able to help them avoid injury,” Sampson relates. “So we feel now there’s a pattern of success with protecting people that’s the whole mission of our business. Everyone in our whole company feels good when their work pays off in lives saved.”

John Dunton and Carol McKeen consulted this Honeywell 6160 keypad to determine that their system had sensed unsafe levels of carbon monoxide. PHOTO BY JOHN CROOKES FOR SDM

The Sale

Integrated systems consultant Creamer remembers some hesitation on homeowner Dunton’s part to adding CO detection.

“At that point, I was making a recommendation as far as what they should do on the burglar part, and that’s when I brought up they should do carbon monoxide detectors now with the potential risks in the new house,” he relates.

“Not that they weren’t at risk before, but with the new addition, it’s a large house, and I thought potentially they had more exposure because of some of the new appliances and systems in the house,” Creamer explains.

“Whenever we’re selling anything, there’s always a little resistance,” Creamer admits. After the cost of installing the detectors, only an additional $2 monthly is required to add carbon monoxide monitoring.

Homeowner Dunton concedes that he at first resisted addition of the CO detectors. “I’ve owned homes for 40 years now, and I’d never had an alarm system in any of them other than battery-operated fire alarms,” Dunton declares. “So when we looked into this alarm system, and the fellow started talking about carbon monoxide detectors, I frankly resisted it.

“I thought he was kind of piling on,” Dunton admits. He and McKeen had just had an addition built onto the original house, which was heated with a 10-year-old oil furnace. “I wasn’t interested.

“I knew you could have a problem, but I thought they were so incredibly rare, and with an oil-fired system and with the gas furnace being new in the new addition, I figured this was an unnecessary, added-on expense,” Dunton continues.

“He pressed me on it and really encouraged me to go ahead and do it, and that’s why I wrote to American Alarm,” Dunton explains. Dunton wrote a letter thanking Creamer for his salesmanship after the life-saving incident. “If he hadn’t pushed back at my reluctance to buy it, we wouldn’t have bought it, and we’d literally be dead.”

McKeen agrees and stresses that it was Creamer’s salesmanship that convinced them to add on the carbon monoxide detection.

“John said to the guy, ‘You know, what really could possibly go wrong?’” McKeen remembers. “And the salesman said, ‘You’ll never know.’ That was kind of what made you think twice.”

The GE ESL 240-COe carbon monoxide detector outside the bedroom of John Dunton and Carol McKeen set off the alarm in the early morning of Feb. 13, 2005, that saved their lives. PHOTO BY JOHN CROOKES

The Advantages

Creamer recommends CO monitoring for several reasons. “I think just the importance of it and also the fact that we’re going to respond to the house and know that’s the alarm we’re getting,” he points out. Battery life is not a concern with wired CO detectors, he notes.

“I think for the minor extra charge to have it monitored and us responding to the house versus nobody responding to a battery-operated alarm is worth it,” he testifies. “If there’s children or elderly in the house, or if it goes off in the middle of the night, will someone hear the beeping? Whatever the case, we’re going to respond to the house.”

Sampson agrees. “At this point, it’s such a public topic now that when they’re putting the quote together and walking through the home, [carbon monoxide detection] is an easy thing to bring up,” Sampson maintains. “It’s a related topic, it’s not viewed as peddling just another product. It’s viewed as a legitimate part of a life safety system.”

Dunton now agrees. “At the time it happened, we proselytized,” he admits. “We were so taken by the incident, we ended up telling everybody we know – it got to be an obsession with me.”

The same morning that they escaped injury from lethal levels of carbon monoxide seeping into their home, they made breakfast and started telephoning friends and family. Those who did not have carbon monoxide detectors were given them by Dunton and McKeen that morning.

Later, all the employees of Dunton’s employee benefits program company, Capital Benefits Group, Maynard, Mass., in which he is a partner, also received CO detectors.

Keith Creamer, an integrated systems consultant for American Alarm, thought the size of the house with its new addition and new systems justified installation of monitored carbon monoxide detectors. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMERICAN ALARM AND COMMUNICATIONS

The Culprit

It was not a combustion malfunction in the 10-year-old oil furnace that directly caused the carbon monoxide to stream into the home that morning. The furnace was operating as it always had.

It was a chimney blocked with tiles lining its interior that had loosened from steam produced by the furnace. Over time, the tiles had completely blocked the exhausting of the furnace.

That production of steam – not poor combustion – was what had caused the blockage. In a chimney without tiles, a blockage might not have occurred.

“We found something had cracked the boiler unit, and it was producing a lot of steam, and over time this was going up the flue,” Dunton explains. Tiles probably had been falling for a while, he thinks.

“One fell and another, and at some point, the critical one that night had let loose and finished blocking off the airway,” he relates. “There was nothing getting through there.”

The blockage was so complete that both sides of the chimney had to be broken to dislodge the tiles and repair it. The chimney has been rebuilt and the furnace replaced since then because it cost approximately 70 percent of the price of a new furnace to repair the cracked firebox, Dunton was told. The oil furnace was only seven months out of warranty, he adds ruefully.

The experience demonstrated to Dunton that carbon monoxide inhalation can result from many causes. “You don’t have to have a malfunctioning furnace to have a problem,” he points out.

Ironically, the homeowners had become aware of the death in January 2005 of Nicole Garofalo from carbon monoxide poisoning only a month before their incident occurred.

“We live in an area where because of snow, you hear a lot about this,” McKeen observes. “The snow piles up and the ducts get blocked.

“So I think people think of it as something that relates to furnaces and happens mostly in New England, but when you think about it, what happened to us for whatever reason – ours was a couple of tiles, the guy said it could have been an animal – this is really something that isn’t limited to a cold climate,” she points out. “You don’t have to live in a rundown house – accidents can happen.

“The public always thinks like we did until the salesman pushed John a little bit,” she admits. “We have a good furnace, a new system, it’s not going to happen to us. A lot of people don’t realize it’s something that could happen to anyone.”

Side bar: More Tragedy Averted

Two additional carbon monoxide incidents handled by American Alarm and Communications Inc., Arlington, Mass., have resulted in more lives saved since the alarm received from the home of John Dunton and Carol McKeen, for which the dealership has won the First Line of Defense Award.

The first of these additional incidents occurred when a carbon monoxide alarm was received by American’s security command center from a home in Wilmington, Mass., at 12:48 p.m. Oct. 2, 2005, a Sunday, reports Wells Sampson, American Alarm’s vice president.

The security command center responded and called the fire department. Firemen reported a high reading of carbon monoxide, shut down the gas furnace, vented the house and suggested the homeowner call for repairs.

The second alarm was only a few weeks later, again on a Sunday, at 7:54 p.m. Oct. 23, 2005, in Cambridge, Mass. The central station operator contacted the homeowner, who requested that the fire department be called.

Firemen discovered a high carbon monoxide reading and vented the house. Residents went to the hospital to be checked for injury. The family had just turned on its radiant heating system that day, which firemen thought was not venting properly, Sampson relates.

In both cases, no serious injuries were reported, Sampson emphasizes.

The First Line of Defense award recognizes and publicizes the effectiveness of electronic security and life safety systems. In its eighth year, the award honors dealers, central stations and emergency authorities that have demonstrated outstanding performance in deterring, detecting or preventing crime and/or loss through the effective design, use and response to security and fire alarm systems. The award is co-sponsored by SDM magazine and the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA), Irving, Texas.

Rosa Giulietti, a central station operator in American Alarm’s security command center, contacted the homeowners only 19 seconds after the alarm went off. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMERICAN ALARM AND COMMUNICATIONS

Side bar: Early One Morning…

Called the silent killer, carbon monoxide poisoning can occur when people are sleeping heavily and least expect it.

Homeowners John Dunton and Carol McKeen had been out late both Friday and Saturday evenings Feb. 11 and 12, 2005, Dunton explains. They did not get to bed until 2 a.m. Sunday morning Feb. 13. Because of this, Dunton says they did not set their alarm clock and planned to sleep until they awakened naturally.

If it had not been for their carbon monoxide detection system, that natural wake-up never may have occurred. Instead, at 6:59 a.m., their alarm system was activated.

“We were both jolted awake by the sound of the alarm, and it being somewhat new, at first we thought someone was trying to break in,” McKeen remembers. Then she remembered the keypad that American Alarm and Communications Inc., Arlington, Mass., had installed in their bedroom, and she went over to read it. It indicated the carbon monoxide detectors had set off the alarm.

Only 19 seconds after the alarm went off, Rosa Giulietti, a central station operator in American Alarm’s security command center, contacted the homeowners.

“She wasn’t sure anything was wrong and thought the alarm system wasn’t functioning,” Giulietti remembers about McKeen. “It’s usually better to be safe than sorry, and I suggested sending the fire department. Like most of our customers, they were hesitant to do that, thinking it would be for nothing.

“I suggested they evacuate,” she continues. “It was pretty cold out that morning from what I remember.” She asked about the type of heating system the building had.

“I asked only because I used to work in the oil industry, and I had a feeling it was the oil burner that set off the alarm,” Giulietti explains. She suggested they open the doors and windows and go to a neighbor’s house while she phoned the fire department to investigate.

Before the homeowners could get their coats on and leave the building, the fire department arrived and began testing the house, starting in the basement where the oil furnace is located.

“They said there were lethal levels down there, and levels were high on the ground level of the house and a high reading in our bedroom,” McKeen relates. She asked one of the firemen how long it would have taken to affect them.

“I don’t think he wanted to answer me,” she concedes. “He said we were very lucky. I think given how tired we were, we were in a sound sleep, and we could very well have been killed. It’s unlikely either one of us would have woken up.”

Giulietti followed up with the customers approximately 30 minutes later. “The follow-up usually comes down to the same operator who handled it,” she notes.

Adds Dominic DelloRusso, American Alarms’ security command center manager, of Giulietti, “She was involved from start to finish. We always follow through a half-hour later with everything we do with whoever we spoke with.”

Side bar: You Can Earn the First Line of Defense Award

Has your security dealership averted a dramatic loss through use of systems it installed? Tell us about it and qualify for next year’s First Line of Defense award, which is co-sponsored by SDM magazine and the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA), Irving, Texas.

Established in 1999, this award recognizes the tangible values and rewards security and fire systems bring to communities and the nation. It honors the teamwork among security installing companies, central stations and emergency authorities in protecting customers and communities.

Entries are judged by percentage ratings in five areas:

  • The impact of the event on the company’s customer, such as the lives saved or property damage averted;
  • The quality of the applicant’s essay;
  • Press coverage of the event at the time it occurred (local, national or both);
  • Back-up documentation submitted with the essay, including testimonials from responding police, fire or medical agencies; and
  • Whether a representative from the award-winning company is able to attend the award presentation at the NBFAA convention/awards gala.

Winning companies must be NBFAA members in good standing. To apply for membership in the NBFAA, visit the Web site www.alarm.org or call (888) 447-1689.


SDM magazine and the NBFAA now are accepting entries for next year’s First Line of Defense award. Eligibility of an event is for two years from Oct. 30, 2004, to Oct. 30, 2006.

To obtain an entry form, visit www.sdmmag.com or www.alarm.org. You also can call the NBFAA at (888) 447-1689.

Side bar: Nicole’s Law on CO Detectors Enacted in Massachusetts

“Nicole’s Law,” a new Massachusetts law named after a 7-year-old girl who died from carbon monoxide poisoning, now requires carbon monoxide detectors in all residential structures in the state with enclosed parking or heating equipment.

“We’ve been installing carbon monoxide detectors for quite a while, but there was an accident last winter when a snowplow driver who was out plowing during a storm called home while on the road and got no response,” relates Wells Sampson, vice president of American Alarm and Communications Inc., Arlington, Mass. “So he turned his truck around, drove home and found his family in trouble. They weren’t very responsive.”

The driver, Mark Garofalo, found his pregnant wife and two children unconscious in their home in Plymouth, Mass., during a heavy snow storm in January 2005. They were suffering from carbon monoxide inhalation caused by snow drifting over the vent for a direct-vented heating system. Nicole and the couple’s unborn child did not survive.

“Many new homes have direct-vented heaters or heating units, but the four-foot drift was enough to block the vent, causing the carbon monoxide buildup in the house,” Sampson explains. “So that spawned a whole lot of effort in the legislature to push this bill through.”

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney signed Nicole’s Law Nov. 4, 2005. It requires working carbon monoxide detectors in all Massachusetts residences and buildings with three or more apartment units by March 31, 2006. Enforcement will be by local fire departments that will inspect residential buildings after sale or transfer.

“There’s some practical questions of implementation that are being figured out by the fire marshal, and we’re waiting for the regulations to be finalized,” Sampson said at press time. “It’s looking like carbon monoxide detectors will be required on each level for R-1 and R-2. It also states that they can be battery-powered, hardwired or wireless.”

Sampson was not sure at press time what type of wireless devices would be accepted.

“The other idea included in the regulation was having combination carbon monoxide/smoke detectors, so there’s some product technology that’s going on as well in the background as this regulation gets firmed up,” he observes.

“It’s one of the hot topics at my state association, the Massachusetts Systems Contractors Association, because a lot of our members are getting requests from homeowners,” Sampson continues. “We also do a lot of education through the association, and the instructors are getting all sorts of calls on this. So we are complying with the law, supporting the law and protecting the community as best we can.”