THE TOPSHAM FIRE Department displays smoke and fire and carbon monoxide detectors, including a fire alarm for the hearing impaired, as well as a fire extinguisher which it can provide for free to residents who qualify.

THE TOPSHAM FIRE Department displays smoke and fire and carbon monoxide detectors, including a fire alarm for the hearing impaired, as well as a fire extinguisher which it can provide for free to residents who qualify.


It’s been nicknamed the silent killer and — under the weather conditions Maine has found itself under of late — the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning increases as appliance vents get covered by snow.

Brunswick Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Emerson said reports of carbon monoxide poisoning incidents have increased in Brunswick and likely through all of New England with the levels of snow that have fallen. There, he said, have been less often cases of faulty detectors or detector batteries.

Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, “and it can be present anywhere basically without anyone knowing about it,” Emerson said.

“It’s produced by incomplete combustion, so any kind of device that uses combustion as a source can be the source of carbon monoxide,” he said, including anything from a vehicle to a gas grange to a wood stove to a furnace — regardless of the type of fuel it burns.

Emerson stressed the importance of keeping heating appliances cleaned and maintained properly. If a piece of equipment isn’t functioning properly, an abundant amount of carbon monoxide can be created — any time of year. With the piles of snow that have built up, the white stuff covering vents can compromise heating systems’ ventilations systems, causing them to operate incorrectly.

Those who own homes with side-vented units should make sure they shovel out vents completely, Emerson said. Steam from a vent that comes through a snow bank doesn’t mean that the system is operating correctly.

With the number of snowstorms this winter, Topsham Fire Chief Brian Stockdale’s department is seeing issues with carbon monoxide poisoning at residential units where vents in back and low on the home are being covered by snow. In addition, the department is seeing commercial buildings with blocked rooftop units unable to vent correctly. Last week, the department was called to Mt. Ararat Middle School when a regulator unit froze late one afternoon, requiring Stockdale to go on the roof to remedy the situation.

In addition to home heating appliances, Emerson said people need to think about outside sources of carbon monoxide, such as vehicles and from generators, that may be too close to the house. For example, people will often open the garage door as they warm up a vehicle in the garage, Emerson said, but that doesn’t provide adequate ventilation.

Detection is a way to avoid succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning. Emerson suggeted people purchase a listed device, one that has been tested by a third party certifying it works as long as used in accordance with the directions. It is recommended detectors be placed near the sleeping areas, because it is when residents are sleeping that they are unable to recognize carbon monoxide poisoning their systems. If a sleeping person is overcome by carbon monoxide, Emerson said, “you simply don’t wake up.”

The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, he said, are headache and dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting and sometimes confusion. If there is long-term exposure you may see a change in the person’s pigment and they may appear flushed.

“Carbon monoxide is challenging because it really depends on the amount present, over the amount of time of exposure, so there are variables that can make each situation different,” Emerson said. “That’s why the detection is so important.”

Stockdale noted that some Topsham residents may qualify for free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. The Topsham Fire Department also offers a voluntary home safety survey program, and will go into a home with a survey checklist they give to the homeowner after. No names or information gets recorded, he said. For more information, call the department at 725-7581.

Emerson noted that access is very important for public safety and asked that people clear snow away from front doors and back porches they aren’t using, to ensure firefighters can swing them open and gain access in the case of an emergency. The town has more than 400 fire hydrants to shovel after storms, which Brunswick firefighters have done a phenomenal job this winter keeping clear, Emerson said. But, he added, if residents should clear hydrants near them and be sure they don’t blow or plow more snow onto them, it would make for a safer environment for everyone.

“We’re at a time this winter where everybody needs to look out for each other,” Emerson said. “If you have elderly neighbors who can’t check their own vents, check on them and shovel them out if need be.”

If anyone has concerns about elderly neighbors they can also call the fire department.

Learn more about carbon monoxide safety at the state fire marshal’s website, at

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