Department practice for monoxide alarms differs from others in state
In the wake of an Aspen businessman’s suicide last week, the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department is reviewing its protocols regarding carbon-monoxide alarms.
But that is standard procedure after any such event, and Fire Chief Willard Clapper, Jr. said his firefighters correctly handled the response to a carbon monoxide alarm around the time of the death of Scott DeGraff Thursday.
The 47-year-old embattled restaurateur was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning inside a vehicle in the garage of a home he and his wife owned in east Aspen. DeGraff in early October filed for bankruptcy after a series of failed business dealings in Aspen and Snowmass Village and owed millions to creditors.
Firefighters and one police officer initially responded to the home around 5:30 a.m., after an alarm company notified the county communications center of possibly high carbon monoxide (CO) levels in the residence.
The DeGraffs purchased the home when they first moved to town but had since moved to the West End. However, they still owned the east Aspen home.
After searching the outside of the house and concluding there was nothing suspicious, the emergency responders left.
That search process is more involved than it sounds. At the DeGraff home, firefighters tried diligently to discern if anyone was inside, Clapper said.
“That’s the critical part. We knock on the door, we walk all the way around, look in the windows,” he said. “We do everything that we possibly can — everything that’s reasonable — to find out if anybody’s home. Obviously if someone’s in there lying on the floor, we gain access and we get to them.”
Firefighters also checked the windows of the garage where DeGraff was, but he had apparently covered them up.
“There was no indication of any reason for them to go in,” Clapper said. “That’s the difficult range that you’re in as a responder.
“If the community said, ‘For every CO alarm, tear the door down, get in there and see if someone’s there ...’ That isn’t the case.”
Protocol for other departments in Colorado would have resulted in firefighters breaking down a door, Clapper said.
In Aspen, however, “that would not float well,” he said.
With nearly 300 monoxide alarm calls within the past two years, firefighters “don’t automatically go up to a door and knock it down,” Clapper said.
While firefighters still respond every time as if someone is inside a home, typically the residents are not there. And “you can’t break down 150 doors” a year, he said.
Clapper pointed out that responding to CO alarms is not as cut and dry as fire calls.
“The problem with CO is that it’s a very unique kind of deal. Once you look in there and you see smoke, done deal,” Clapper said of fires. “That’s easy. CO is a different thing. It’s odorless, it’s colorless, you don’t even know if it’s there.”
Firefighters at the DeGraff home “did everything possible to see if anybody was in there. The place was spotless. It looked like it was ready to be rented.”
After the initial response, the alarm in the DeGraff home apparently continued sounding, and the alarm company notified DeGraff’s wife, Liza, who went to the home and called authorities around 8 a.m.
When firefighters returned, the CO level in the house was 285 parts per million. At 150 parts per million, a person can survive no longer than 10 to 15 minutes, Clapper said. Monoxide levels of 35 to 70 parts per million are usually enough to trigger an alarm.
Even if firefighters had realized someone was inside during their first response, it would probably have been too late to save DeGraff’s life. Eric Hansen, Pitkin County deputy coroner, said DeGraff died between the hours of 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. “within minutes.”
Still, the fire department is looking at its protocols to see if there is anything that needs clarification in responding to monoxide alarms.
In Thursday’s response, Clapper said he is confident firefighters acted appropriately.
“In this situation, there is nothing that we could have done or that anyone could have done. Nothing.”