John Gignac campaigns for CO alarm legislation in New Brunswick as Fire Marshal Douglas Browne looks on.

How to Avoid the ‘silent killer’

Toronto Star, Apr 16 2016 – Jacqueline Kovacs, SPECIAL TO THE STAR

For many young families, it’s a familiar sound that requires attention but seldom spells life-threatening danger: a toddler crying in the night. But for Kamloops, B.C., resident Monique Ruppel, having heard it at 3 a.m. for the second time one night in January, it was a different story when she went to see what was troubling her daughter, Celia.

Her husband, Kyle, also woke immediately and they both realized they were dizzy, and felt headaches, nausea and burning eyes. When they reached the crib, Celia began vomiting. The family was in the throes of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, but because they didn’t have a CO alarm, they hadn’t been alerted to the danger.

Protection from CO poisoning should not hinge on the cries of a child or luck, say safety experts. And steps have been taken in recent years to make safeguards — the proper installation of CO alarms in residences — the law of the land.

Had the unfortunate Ruppel family been in Ontario, for instance, they would have been in violation of the Hawkins-Gignac law, which mandates a CO alarm be installed outside any sleeping area in every residence.

In the one year since all Ontario homeowners have had to be in compliance with the law, director/deputy, prevention and risk management of the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management, Al Suleman, has seen positive changes.

“Ever since we’ve introduced the regulation and compliance has kicked in, almost on a weekly basis, we’re seeing families holding their CO alarms and saying, ‘It saved our lives,’ ” says Suleman.

Indeed, a recent IPSOS poll of 2,000 Canadians found that 94 per cent of Ontario residents say they have at least one CO alarm, although the pollster admits that number is high because no one likes to admit they are breaking the law. In the rest of the country, though, awareness is lagging.

A telling snapshot from the same poll indicates the number of households across the country claiming to have at least one CO alarm (as well as at least one potential source of CO) is falling behind.

It’s statistics such as those that keep Suleman and John Gignac, a former firefighter who was the driving force behind the Hawkins-Gignac Law, busy campaigning and raising aware- ness about the dangers of CO.

“Awareness is an ongoing effort,” says Suleman, adding that residences are just one phase in the CO regulations — further phases will look for gaps in the current regulation as well as legislating them for other buildings such as daycare facilities and retirement living centres.

The other part of the awareness, though, is maintaining those alarms and making sure they are still functional and up-to-date, he says.

Gignac is motivated by reasons that stem from an unimaginable tragedy. His niece was Ontario Provincial Police Const. Laurie Hawkins (née Gignac), who, along with her husband Richard, daughter Cassandra and son Jordan, died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a gas fireplace in their Woodstock, Ont., home in December, 2008.

“I’m going to keep working on fulfilling my promise to my brother that all of Canada will be protected,” he says. “And Ontario can provide leadership for the rest of the country.”
Gignac is now spreading the word beyond the Ontario borders. He met last fall with New Brunswick’s Fire Marshal Douglas Browne and Public Safety Minister Stephen Horsman, who expressed strong interest in CO legislation.

Conversations have also been had on the western side of the country with Sheldon Guertin, fire captain and life safety educator for Kamloops, who has had meetings with provincial government officials in B.C. Gignac says he will carry on, raising awareness and funds for CO alarms for economically challenged areas until everyone is safe from what is now called the “silent killer.”

The hope is that legislation — and not tragedies or near misses, such as the Ruppels’ — will spur people to action. Ideally raising public awareness to make the dangers of CO on par with the notion of driving a vehicle without wearing a seatbelt Soon after they realized something was terribly wrong, Monique Ruppel’s inlaws arrived to help, just as Kyle was collapsing.

They called 911 and the family was rushed to the hospital, where they were treated for CO poisoning — including nearly three hours in a hyperbaric chamber to restore their oxygen. “We are all feeling very well and expected to make a full recovery,” she wrote on Facebook. “Please ensure you have a carbon monoxide detector and that it works. We are so thankful Celia woke us . . . Our sweet, sweet baby saved us all.”