Calgary firefighters potentially saved the lives of about 150 people on Tuesday while responding to an urgent medical call for a resident of a southwest highrise.
A fire crew rushed to a building on Horton Road just after 8:30 a.m. to help a man with breathing problems related to a pre-existing medical condition.
When firefighters got inside the man’s home, though, they were quickly faced with a second serious emergency — the crew’s portable carbon monoxide monitor went off and was showing levels of 183 parts per million.
The man was wheeled out of his unit in a wheelchair and taken to the lobby, where EMS took over care and brought him to the hospital.
Firefighters then immediately activated the fire alarm system and started evacuating everyone in the building, telling them over the intercom that there was a CO emergency.
The nearly 150 evacuees kept warm in Calgary Transit buses while fire crews swept every floor, helping evacuate the building and assessing the air quality.
The Calgary Fire Department said CO levels as high as 400 parts per million were found in some parts of the building.
“Coincidence, serendipitous, and good fortune our crews responded and their alarms activated to indicate there was a problem,” CFD spokesperson Carol Henke said Tuesday afternoon.
The sudden evacuation caught many of the residents off guard.
“I was sleeping, I don’t know,” evacuee Gilka Albuquerque said. “I just wake up, my husband call me, I just get panic.”
A frozen-over fresh air intake was eventually found on the roof and fire investigators believe that was the source of the poisonous gas build-up.
The building was ventilated and once CO readings reached zero, the residents were allowed back into their homes. The CFD said the property management company, along with its mechanical contractor, was also on the scene as the situation unfolded.
There were no reported injuries as a result of the incident.
According to Henke, this type of buildup isn’t rare when the weather dips to extreme lows.
“We do see that commonly in extreme cold,” she said. “In larger buildings, the ventilation system ices up and prevents fresh air from coming in, therefore carbon monoxide builds up in the building.”
All of Alberta was under an extreme cold warning on Tuesday, with temperatures in Calgary reaching as low as -29 C at 8 a.m. and -30 C at 9 a.m., according to Environment Canada.
CO is colourless, odourless, tasteless and non-irritating and if it goes undetected, it can be deadly.
The fire department offered the following tips to avoid emergencies like this one:
- Ensure you have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms on every level of your home — test them every month
- Have a home escape plan with a designated meeting place and make sure everyone in the family is aware of what to do in an emergency
- When using space heaters, keep three feet [one metre] clearance from anything that can burn and turn them off when leaving the room or going to bed
- Ensure your furnace and exhaust vents are free of snow and ice — carbon monoxide (CO) can build up within your home if the vents are blocked
- Never use barbecues, camping heaters, gas or coal stoves or a generator indoors — only use them outdoors and away from windows and doors