Does your child's school have CO detectors?

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SALT LAKE CITY — It started out as a regular school day, but within minutes dozens of children at Montezuma Creek Elementary School started getting very sick.

An invisible threat spread quickly through the school, with no alarm, no detector, no warning at all. As KSL Investigators found out, the problem reaches hundreds of schools statewide.

On Nov. 18 a seemingly endless number of 911 calls started pouring to the San Juan County dispatch center.

"We need EMTs at our school," a caller told dispatchers. "A little girl has passed out, not sure what the situation is."

"I have kids that are collapsing and throwing up and feeling lightheaded," another caller said. "I have an adult with me right now that's collapsed; her eyes are in seizure mode."

In total, about 50 people — mostly children — were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after an exhaust pipe disconnected from a water heater, venting gas into the school.

There were no carbon monoxide detectors in the school, which actually isn't that surprising since Montezuma Creek was built in 1982 and is located in rural Utah on the Navajo Nation.

The whole incident made KSL start asking: What about other Utah schools?

To answer that question, we surveyed every public school in Utah. What we found out took us by surprise.

Out of Alpine School District's 75 schools, not one of them had carbon monoxide detectors.

It was the same story for Davis School District: none of its 85 schools had CO detectors.

In fact, out of the 708 schools that responded to our survey, 86 percent do not have carbon monoxide detectors.

When we asked about Granite School District, the state's biggest district with 92 schools, we got the same answer: zero detectors.

In fact, out of the 708 schools that responded to our survey, 86 percent do not have carbon monoxide detectors.

A quick solution for these districts would be to install store-bought detectors. While Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley said administrators might consider that option, a solution is really not that simple.

"If a battery were to die over the weekend, nobody would hear the ringing," Horsley said. "Perhaps months might go by before somebody would check that and detect that the batteries were no longer working."

A long-term fix would be to install commercial-grade detectors wired into the school's alarm system, which could be very expensive.


"If we were to place detectors in every classroom it's upwards of half a million to a million dollars," Horsley said.

Utah currently has no regulations requiring carbon monoxide detectors in schools — but that could change.

When we took our findings to Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, he called them "shocking," adding that the Montezuma Creek incident should serve as "a wake-up call" for lawmakers.

"We're talking peanuts here, and we ought not to debate this too long," Dabakis said. "I'll be introducing legislation, and I can't imagine it being a controversial issue."

Until that happens, many schools are taking matters into their own hands.

Administrators at the Canyons District made the decision to install store-bought detectors in the boiler rooms and kitchens of all 44 of their schools, within the first week of the Montezuma Creek incident. They said they'll look for a more permanent solution in the future.

"For $1,800 and a few man hours, we feel it's very, very worth it," said Kevin Ray, risk manager for the Canyons District.

"It's better than not having anything at all, just having that piece of mind knowing that it's there," he said.

Several of the school districts KSL spoke with said they have plans to install carbon monoxide detectors in all of their schools as well.



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Tania Mashburn and Mike Headrick


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