Carbon monoxide detectors hard to find in Anchorage after series of tragedies

Stores across Anchorage have reported shortages of carbon monoxide detectors this week following a Spenard apartment fire that killed three people and two Anchorage and Mat-Su CO incidents — one of them fatal — in the space of a month.

Shelves where CO detectors would usually be stocked were barren at the Lowe's and Home Depot stores on Tudor Road Thursday, although staff at both stores said they had received limited additional stock Friday.

Sharon Yakanak, a hardware sales associate at the Tudor Lowe's, said Lowe's stores across town had been out of CO detectors Wednesday. The devices, which can be battery-powered or plugged into a wall outlet, alert people to the presence of carbon monoxide — an odorless, colorless gas that can cause symptoms ranging from nausea and headaches to unconsciousness and death.

"I've worked for Lowe's for almost 12 years, and this is the first time I've ever seen us out," Yakanak said.

Yakanak said she had sent customers to the only store she found with detectors in stock earlier this week, Alaska Industrial Hardware.

Staff at the nearby Home Depot, as well as Andy's Ace Hardware on Muldoon Road, said they had also sold out of CO detectors in the past two weeks. About a dozen had been restocked at Ace Hardware.

The shortages follow a series of several high-profile fire and CO calls, including the deadly Feb. 15 Royal Suite Apartments blaze, currently being investigated as an arson and homicide by Anchorage police. Five days later, 18-year-old Trevor Noble died at a South Anchorage home due to a carbon monoxide leak that sickened seven other family members.

On Monday, nine people at a Houston home were hospitalized with severe CO poisoning from a generator left running in the residence's unventilated crawlspace. During the Houston and South Anchorage calls, firefighters found CO at or near levels that pose a threat to human health.

Anchorage Police Department Lt. John McKinnon said there were multiple CO detectors in the South Anchorage home, but they hadn't been installed.

"The brackets were up in the home with the wires coming out," McKinnon said. "The detectors were not on the bracket, but they were in the home."

Houston Fire Chief Christian Hartley said Friday that the home from which the nine people were evacuated had one carbon monoxide detector.

"It was actually in the bedroom where the crawlspace was to where the source was, but it was nonfunctional," Hartley said.

It wasn't clear why the detector didn't work during Monday's CO incident, Hartley said. It may have had a dead battery, exceeded its lifespan or may have been exposed to CO in a previous incident.

CO detectors have a limited lifespan of 5 to 10 years depending on the model, according to manufacturers like First Alert and Kidde, and have to be replaced once it passes.

Customers' interest in the devices, Yakanak said, began to rise in late February.

"I heard that when the Royal Suite burned they started flying and then when the CO fatality occurred," Yakanak said. "People realized that theirs was old and they needed to replace them."

The Anchorage Fire Department's deputy chief, Erich Scheunemann, said Wednesday that he has also personally had trouble finding detectors in the Mat-Su.

"I know I was in Three Bears last week and got the last CO detector they had, because I needed to replace one," Scheunemann said.

The Anchorage Home Builders Association, which gave $500 last week to each of the 30 households displaced by the Royal Suite fire, will donate 500 CO detectors to AFD, spokeswoman Nikki Giordano said Friday.

Giordano said the detectors, which were bought for $20 apiece through Spenard Builders Supply, should be handed over to firefighters next week for distribution to homes in need. She said the gift, made through AHBA's charitable endowment, was a response to the Anchorage and Houston CO incidents.

"That's why these are so important: to get the word out," Giordano said.

In Houston, Hartley said a Wasilla business, Taylor Fire Protection Services, had donated $500 in CO detectors to the department. That money bought 17 detectors according to Hartley, who plans to hand them out on a need basis as he seeks more of the devices.

"That's just the biggest thing about carbon monoxide: no odor, no taste, no color and no discrimination in how many people it kills," Hartley said.

Here are some tips from Hartley on buying and placing CO alarms:

Find a CO detector with a digital display that shows parts per million of CO detected in the air, as well as a peak-exposure feature displaying the highest reading recorded — a helpful item for first responders.

A typical home should have one CO detector in each bedroom and hallway, Hartley said, as well as in the kitchen and furnace room. Another good place for a detector is any entryway into the home that connects to the garage, which can be an an overlooked source of carbon monoxide due to idling vehicles.

"It's probably the most common place for CO to get into a house, just CO coming in the door," Hartley said.

Although detectors are labeled with their dates of manufacture, Hartley recommended writing the year of purchase on each one as it is installed. Doing so helps determine when a detector needs to be replaced.

Exposure to CO affects detectors' sensitivity, Hartley said, so they should be replaced after they sound during a CO incident.

Lowe's has an online guide to buying and placing CO detectors and smoke alarms, covering various features the devices can have.