NC lawmaker: State carbon monoxide law needs to be tougher

N.C. Rep. Becky Carney said the state needs to toughen its law that requires carbon monoxide alarms inside hotels

By Anna Douglas
The Charlotte Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina needs to toughen its law that requires carbon monoxide alarms inside hotels, says the lawmaker who spearheaded the legislation.

N.C. Rep. Becky Carney, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, was the lead author on the 2013 law. It passed after three people died six weeks apart in the same hotel room in Boone and calls for annual inspections at hotels statewide.

But inspectors don’t go in all rooms where risk of exposure to carbon monoxide is highest.

In November, two people were hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning after staying in a Fayetteville hotel that didn’t have an alarm in their room.

“It begs the question – how did this happen,” Carney said. “Obviously we need to have some further conversations. I’m open to putting teeth into this.”

The state’s fire marshal says inspectors who check for the potentially life-saving alarms at hotels aren’t allowed to go inside occupied rooms. And, North Carolina law doesn’t require specific rooms to be checked.

In Fayetteville, officials had passed the Residence Inn by Marriott on an inspection a year before people got sick inside Room 123. During the 2016 inspection, the inspector didn’t check that room for an alarm.

After the carbon monoxide poisoning, hotel guests were evacuated and the business was forced to close for a week.

Investigators found a damaged water heater leaked carbon monoxide gas into Room 123, located next to a mechanical room.

The hospital that treated the sick people quickly notified emergency management officials, likely preventing deaths or more sickness at the hotel from carbon monoxide, according to the Fayetteville fire department.

City inspectors hadn’t checked Room 123 before because they “make the assumption the room is occupied due to expectation of privacy in any hotel,” said Kevin Arata, Fayetteville city spokesman.

This is common, said N.C. Chief Fire Marshal Brian Taylor, adding that inspectors most often are limited to checking alarms in public places of a hotel – not individual rooms.

The hotel in Fayetteville was forced to install carbon monoxide alarms in three exposed rooms after the November incident and city officials found the hotel in violation of state law.

The general manager at the Residence Inn would not say why the hotel had not installed alarms previously. He referred the Observer’s questions to Residence Inn’s corporate office, which did not respond.

North Carolina is among 13 states that require carbon monoxide detectors in hotels.

Alarms are required in rooms next to a space containing fuel-burning appliances, like water heaters. Rooms with fireplaces are also required to have alarms.

No state oversight

In at least one hotel recently in North Carolina, an alarm protected guests.

In Asheville over Christmas weekend 2016, a gas powered pressure washer running outside a hotel triggered carbon monoxide alarms to sound and guests were evacuated. Investigators discovered the fumes from the pressure washer had been sucked into the hotel via the building’s HVAC system, a fire official said.

The state doesn’t track incidents where alarms go off or where people are poisoned by carbon monoxide. Officials with North Carolina’s State Fire Marshal’s Office said they do not know how often carbon monoxide is found inside hotels or whether local inspections are detecting all potential problems.

The state’s fire services need more data about injuries like carbon monoxide poisoning to determine whether changes are necessary, Taylor said. He plans to ask lawmakers soon to require hospitals to report when certain injuries are treated in emergency rooms, including carbon monoxide sickness, burns and firework-related injuries.

All enforcement of the carbon monoxide law falls on cities and counties responsible for inspecting hotels, said Dan Austin, chief code consultant with the Fire Marshal’s Office.

Some cities, like Charlotte, have their own fire department with code officials who conduct hotel inspections. In other places in North Carolina, code officials work for county governments. The state doesn’t track whether the local governments are completing all required inspections at hotels or how inspectors follow up on dangerous violations.

In Charlotte, fire code inspectors say it’s not always possible to check all carbon monoxide alarms inside hotels. When rooms are booked and unavailable for inspection, the city’s inspectors require hotel staff to provide documentation that carbon monoxide alarms are present and have been periodically tested.

“We’re putting some of the responsibility on them by having that log,” said Chief Fire Inspector Kevin Miller.

Taylor said requiring documentation is a good idea.

“That is how I would handle it,” he said. “Ask (hotels) to document that in areas you can not access.”

But these steps aren’t required under state law.

Mecklenburg County’s fire marshal’s office is in charge of inspecting hotels outside Charlotte city limits, including in Huntersville, Matthews and Davidson. The county office says inspectors spot check vacant rooms and test carbon monoxide detectors, if they can do so without setting off the building’s alarm system.

Since the law went in effect in October 2013, local inspectors in Charlotte have not shut down any hotels for violating the carbon monoxide alarm requirement, Miller said. In most cases, he said, issues can be resolved on-site immediately if an inspector finds a problem.

Copyright 2018 The Charlotte Observer

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