25 Investigates: Some Mass. schools don't have carbon monoxide detectors

WESTBORO, Mass. — Early in the morning Aug. 8, an alarm screamed inside Westboro Knowledge Beginnings, a pre-school on East Main Street.

It was the carbon monoxide detector.

The CO levels inside the pre-school that morning were 50 parts per million (ppm), not dangerous for adults, but potentially dangerous for small children, Westborough Fire Chief Patrick Purcell said.

An investigation later determined a cleaning crew used propane-fueled equipment the night before, leaving a strong trace of carbon monoxide throughout the building.

The fire department kept everyone out until the building could be properly ventilated.

Without the carbon monoxide detectors, "nobody would have known about it," Purcell said.

Massachusetts firefighters have detected carbon monoxide inside schools 347 times since 2001, according to records from the Department of Fire Services.

The data shows 166 of those calls came in the last five years, and 86 incidents happened in elementary schools, including kindergarten.

"Most parents aren't aware that most schools in Massachusetts, that carbon monoxide detectors are not required," Douglas Fire Chief Kent Vinson said.

Vinson knows the dangers of carbon monoxide. In 2014, 16 kindergartners and two adults had to be rushed to a hospital for possible carbon monoxide poisoning after an incident in one of the town's buildings.

Since that scare, Vinson has been on a mission to get a CO detector inside every Massachusetts school.

"If I could have that incident in a small town like Douglas, what about an incident somewhere else in the state where the population at the school might be a lot larger?" Vinson asked.

State law requires new schools be equipped, but older schools do not have to have them, Vinson said.

There's also no oversight, so state regulators don't know how many schools across the Commonwealth don't have CO detectors.

"Local school districts are not required to report this information to us," the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in an email to Boston 25.

The lawmakers pushing the CO detection legislation have no idea how many schools have them, either.

"We do not have any specific data to provide you due to the fact there is currently no reporting mechanism in place," Robin Frechette, a legislative aide for State Rep. Brian Ashe, told Boston 25 in an email.

Ashe introduced a bill in January that would require all schools to have carbon monoxide detectors.

"My kids are both out of high school now. If I had known something like this earlier, I probably would have been much more concerned sending my kids to school," the Democrat from Longmeadow said.

"If we can do something that potentially saves children's lives, it would irresponsible for us not to do it," he said.

25 Investigates reached out to every Massachusetts school district in August. Out of the 84 that immediately responded to our inquiry, 18 schools districts—1 in 5—said they did not have a CO detector in every building.

Some districts, like Brockton, Framingham, Hingham and Foxborough don't have any carbon monoxide detectors at all.

Only eight out of 125 schools in Boston have CO detectors.

Ashe is not the first lawmaker to propose mandatory school CO detectors. Similar bills on Beacon Hill have gone nowhere.

He said the reason is always funding.

"Of course there's a cost with it, I mean when you look at the cost of lives, children's lives, you can't put a price tag on that."

After the 2014 scare in Douglas, Vinson said he made sure to get CO detectors hardwired in all four of the town's schools. He said the cost was $40,000, or $10,000 per schools.

If Ashe's proposal becomes law, Vinson will fulfill a promise he made more than five years ago.

"I made a vow to myself and to the parents who had children affected that I would do everything I can immediately to make sure there are carbon monoxide detectors in the schools."

25 Investigates created the interactive map below using the data we received from the 84 school districts who responded to our inquiry. A green check mark means all the schools in that district have carbon monoxide detectors, a black ‘X' means none of the schools in that district have detectors and a blue star means some schools in that direct have detectors.