Last spring, three people died from carbon monoxide poisoning after staying at the Blue Ridge Plaza Best Western Hotel in Boone, N.C. The victims—elderly couple Daryl and Shirley Jenkins and 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams—visited the property seven weeks apart and all stayed in room 225. Though the initial investigation following the Jenkins’ deaths was inconclusive, toxicology reports eventually revealed that the deadly gas was to blame for the tragedies. The pool heater’s exhaust pipe, which ran directly under room 225, was the source of the lethal leak.
The deaths made national headlines, and Damon Mallatere, the hotel’s manager and president of Appalachian Hospitality Management, was charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter in January. He will most likely face legal action from the families of the victims as well.
While carbon monoxide poisoning at hotels is extremely rare, dire outcomes like this serve as a reminder of how serious an issue it is. Hotel owners and operators should practice regular maintenance and checks on equipment and systems to ensure the highest standards of guest safety.
“The primary hazard associated with carbon monoxide is that it’s a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas, so it’s impossible to detect without some kind of electronic detection system,” says Gregory Harrington, principal fire protection engineer at the National Fire Prevention Association. “You can’t tell that it’s in the building until it’s too late.”
Maintenance and Monitoring
Common hotel systems that could produce carbon monoxide include fuel-burning furnaces, boilers, pool heaters, emergency generators, fireplaces, and in-suite kitchens with gas-fired stoves. If exhaust pipes attached to these devices are damaged, bent, or punctured, carbon monoxide could build up and leak into nearby areas.
Maintaining and monitoring the potential sources of carbon monoxide is something that hotels should do at least annually.
Bringing in unbiased third-party inspectors, such as a local fire department rather than a service that sells carbon monoxide alarms, to audit the hotel also is a good way to get objective opinions about potential danger zones.
Tom Daly, principal at The Hospitality Security Consulting Group, explains that it is important to reevaluate systems following any type of natural disaster where equipment may have shifted or venting could have become blocked or dislodged. Inspections should occur after earthquakes, hurricanes, or even massive snowstorms.
“These are commonsense procedures,” he says. “You have to have a diligent program in-house to do that kind of inspection based on whatever legal obligation you have.”
In the case of the North Carolina hotel deaths, a contractor was hired to install the pool-heating system that was eventually identified as the source of the deadly carbon monoxide leak.
When working with contractors, make sure to check references and ensure that the company has the proper permits before starting construction on a project, says Stephen Barth, the founder of HospitalityLawyer.com and professor of hotel law at the University of Houston.
It’s also important for municipalities to inspect the project and sign off on it after completion. This will help hoteliers avoid liability if a system is not installed properly.
“Anytime you use contractors, you want to check out their credibility,” Barth says. “The problem is that innkeepers are not experts in all of these areas. To a certain degree, like anybody else, they are susceptible of being duped.”
New requirements from the International Code Council (ICC) for the International Building Code and the International Fire Code state that carbon monoxide alarms should be installed in any location that includes a device that could potentially produce carbon monoxide.
“As states, counties, and cities update their codes, they’ll look to the international codes and most likely adopt them,” Daly says.
The cost of installing carbon monoxide alarms is relatively inexpensive for a hotel. These alarms generally range between $50-$100 each. Since most midsized hotels will average three to five potential sources for carbon monoxide, hoteliers usually can put alarms in place for less than $1,000.
Currently, there are no federal requirements or mandates for carbon monoxide alarms or detectors in hotels. “The codes are not static—the codes are dynamic and they change,” says Daly, who suggests checking with state hotel associations regularly to find out about the latest legislation related to carbon monoxide alarm and detector installation. “If you know what’s coming, you can deal with it; if you have no idea, you’re a liability waiting to happen.”
Harrington believes hoteliers should be proactive and install carbon monoxide alarms in the locations recommended by the ICC, whether it’s required by their state or not.
“There is always the potential for an accident,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense to just spend the money and mitigate a potential problem than have to deal with it after the fact.”