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Proactive approaches to CO

28 May 2022

THE LATEST research involving UK heating engineers has identified a significant increase in the number of dangerous appliances across the nation being installed or poorly maintained due to the repercussions of COVID-19, with many individuals delaying crucial annual servicing. Steve Boggis and Craig Drinkald outline how every area of the industry can work together to ensure the highest standards of protection.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a highly poisonous gas produced by the incomplete burning of any carbon fuel such as natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas. According to the Gas Safe Register’s website, this situation can arise when a gas appliance has been incorrectly fitted, badly repaired or otherwise poorly maintained.

CO can build up if flues, chimneys or vents are blocked in any way. Solid fuels, among them coal, wood or petrol, as well as oil, can also produce quantities of CO when they burn.

The crucial point to note is that CO can be deadly. The danger is ramped up still further due to the fact that you cannot smell, see or taste this gas. 
For those individuals impacted by CO, some of the symptoms – ie headaches, dizziness, nausea, breathlessness, loss of consciousness and collapse – actually mimic the effects of viruses and even a bad hangover.

What are the tell-tale signs of a carbon monoxide leak? There are several. A floppy yellow or orange flame on a gas hob or oven rather than a crisp blue flame, for example. Dark, sooty staining on or around gas appliances is another tell-tale indicator, as are pilot lights that frequently blow out and the occurrence of increased condensation inside windows.

Steve Boggis: The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) recognises that, although many organisations collect information relevant to CO safety, at the present moment there’s an incomplete picture of CO risk, exposure and response here in the UK. That being the case, how is the NFCC working with Fire and Rescue Services across the nation in a bid to change that situation? 
Craig Drinkald:
Current legislation doesn’t mandate Fire and Rescue Services to manage the task of CO safety. However, we want – and, indeed, feel we have a responsibility – to provide, where possible, a supportive role as part of our remit and commitment to prevent harm to people in homes and workplaces.

This includes proactively working with Fire and Rescue Services to support them if they can install CO alarms where required as part of home safety visits. The role also encompasses ensuring that staff are able to educate individuals on the potential dangers presented by CO and how they can remain protected.

We’re particularly concerned that there may be under-reporting in terms of the number of individuals killed or seriously affected by CO poisoning each year, which is precisely why we are working in partnership with industry bodies including the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group, the Gas Safe Register and the CO Research Trust in a determined bid to help improve the data that exists in relation to CO incidents.

On that last point, we’re working to identify if and how we can collect and analyse the necessary data we require to gain a real understanding of how many people across the UK are being impacted by CO poisoning and the measures that need to be implemented to safeguard them.

Steve Boggis: The Government recently announced future amendments to the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015 and Approved Document J. What has been the NFCC’s response to this announcement and what further changes to legislation would the NFCC want to see in order to help achieve consistency across the UK for the fitting of detection solutions?
Craig Drinkald:
The Government’s announcement late last November referencing future changes to the Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015 was welcomed by the NFCC. The proposals put forward include the requirement for CO detection in social and private rented properties with fixed appliances.

Future changes to Approved Document J will also require CO alarms to be fitted when new appliances such as gas boilers or fires are installed in any home. For the record, that includes owner-occupied premises as well.

Further, the NFCC responded to the consultation entitled ‘Domestic Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarms: Proposals to Extend Regulations’, duly setting out our position. This is something for which we had campaigned over a number of years.

Ultimately, it’s vital that we achieve a consistency of approach when it comes to CO prevention across the entirety of the UK and upgrading legislation is the only way in which we can truly achieve that goal. However, it’s going to take a combined responsibility encompassing Fire and Rescue Services, fuel appliance manufacturers, professional installers and CO detection manufacturers to ensure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to improve the standard of CO safety throughout British homes.

Steve Boggis: Making sure people have adequate alarms within their premises such that specific requirements for protection can be met is absolutely crucial. For the most vulnerable groups in society, what actions should be taken to ensure that each individual’s needs are accounted for?
Craig Drinkald:
The NFCC’s person-centred approach to prevention supports Fire and Rescue Services in identifying the potential vulnerabilities of every single individual. Working in collaboration with partners, such as Adult Social Care services, Fire and Rescue Services can help individuals to engage the levels of support, advice and protection they need to ensure their safety.

Unlike a fire, which creates its own warning factors, such as an increase in heat and the creation of smoke, CO is completely invisible. It’s impossible to see it, taste it or smell it. Put simply, individuals have no way of knowing if they’re at risk of CO poisoning unless they have a working CO detector in the premises.

Individuals such as those living with disabilities or people with socio-economic difficulties can often be placed at greater risk. A prime example of this is the current increase in energy prices, which is further accelerating fuel poverty throughout the UK. Many families are now having to choose between eating or heating their homes.

This situation, combined with the latest research identifying the fact that many appliances may not have been serviced throughout the pandemic, is placing individuals at real potential risk of CO poisoning. This is why it’s so important that every facet of the industry works together to undertake a proactive, rather than reactive approach to CO that adequately informs all individuals, and particularly those who are most vulnerable, on the potential dangers, while in parallel actively encouraging the installation of dedicated CO alarms.

For professional installers who are fitting, maintaining and servicing domestic appliances, sharing information and advice on the potential sources of CO, the symptoms it creates and the correct places to install a CO alarm to ensure proper detection are extremely important if we’re going to achieve the highest standards of protection for all individuals.

Steve Boggis: How important do you think interlinked systems are for realising the highest standards of CO and fire protection for all domestic property types and is it the case that the rest of the UK ought to be following the guidance outlined in the updated Scottish Tolerable Standard?
Craig Drinkald:
Many fuel-burning appliances, such as boilers, are located in garages or utility rooms that may be quite a distance from frequently occupied rooms, such as bedrooms or living rooms. The ability for interlinked alarms to achieve the earliest possible warning of a potential CO event, as all devices sound at the same time, is providing what many believe to be a revolutionary approach to both CO and fire protection. For its part, the NFCC encourages people to consider the use of interlinked alarms in the home.

However, while detection is the first part of protection, information is very much the second. There have been really exciting developments in detection technology. Some products can facilitate remote monitoring that allows access to essential data regarding the potential risk level throughout a property.

From an accident reduction perspective, working with partners to provide such data can enable Fire and Rescue Services to apply resources in the most appropriate way. Effectively analysing this information to understand the potential level of risk and apply the necessary measures for an adequate response is key. This is an area in which we have a very keen interest.

Steve Boggis: COVID-19 exerted a significant impact on the sector throughout 2020 and 2021, with the latest research highlighting the dangers of practitioners not being able to gain physical access to properties to conduct essential servicing and maintenance. How has the industry adapted to the challenges of the pandemic and how do you feel this will shape CO and fire safety measures going forward?
Craig Drinkald:
Throughout 2020 and 2021, the Fire and Rescue Services had a responsibility to not only protect the members of their own workforces, but also to ensure the safety of those in their local communities. The NFCC provided backing and guidance to assist Fire and Rescue Services in continuing to offer support and salient advice. As was – and is – the case when it comes to other sectors, the fire sector did have to adapt to new ways of working and engaging with its communities.

In practice, different techniques were implemented, including telephone and virtual home safety checks. Many individuals may not have realised they were at risk from CO and made assumptions simply because they didn’t – and perhaps still don’t – realise the potential risks within their home. For example, an appliance such as a boiler may be heating water, but this doesn’t mean it’s working as it should (and could) be emitting CO.

The NFCC has made available an online Home Fire Safety Check tool, which Fire and Rescue Services in England are able to implement for their local communities if they don’t already have such a provision. This tool allows individuals and partners to undertake a virtual Home Fire Safety Check.

Tailored advice can be provided for individuals. The most vulnerable, who may then need a home visit, can also be identified. This frees resources for community work that identifies and assists higher risk individuals.

Steve Boggis is Trade Business Unit Director for FireAngel (www.fireangel.co.uk)

Craig Drinkald is Lead Officer for Carbon Monoxide at the National Fire Chiefs Council (www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk)