PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — Pasco County Fire Rescue crews saw an uptick in carbon monoxide exposure incidents caused by vehicles with keyless ignitions last year, incidents similar to the situation in Tampa on January 7 that left one man and two dogs dead and a woman and first responders hospitalized.

“We sat down, and we said, ‘How can we protect the citizens of Pasco County? How can we protect our firefighters?’” said PCFR Public Information Officer Corey Dierdorff.

The answer is 80 carbon monoxide monitors PCFR purchased for $14,000. First responders carry them with their gear when they respond to medical calls.

The devices alert crews if carbon monoxide may be to blame for patients’ symptoms.

“It gives a layer of protection for our first responders so they can pull back out of the house, put the proper breathing apparatus on, go back in, and give you the quickest treatment possible,” said Dierdorff.

Why they're needed

From July into August of 2018, PCFR responded to three calls of people being sickened by carbon monoxide due to keyless ignition vehicles. The last of those responses was to Cathy Gunn’s home in Wesley Chapel.

“I was feeling tired, but I’m a caregiver, so everyone’s always telling me, ‘You look tired,’” Gunn said of how she felt on August 10.

On that day, Gunn did something she said she had never done before – she parked her car inside her garage. It’s a keyless ignition vehicle.

“When I got out, I don’t know what happened. I really don’t,” said Gunn when asked if she remembers turning the car off. She said there was heavy rain that day, and she didn’t hear the sound of the engine. 

Four hours later, Gunn’s husband discovered the car was still running. She called 911.

“I am blessed to be alive,” she said.

While she was treated at the hospital, Gunn said she continued to suffer the effects of CO exposure.

“I couldn’t even speak. I was having difficulty walking. I was walking into walls. I was having nausea and dizziness and all kinds of things,” Gunn said. 

Lingering effects

Gunn underwent 43 days of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. She said she still struggles with fatigue and extreme sensitivity to carbon monoxide, present in places like gas stations and parking garages.

While she’s found ways to address her symptoms on her own, she said more research is needed on how to help people exposed to carbon monoxide.

“The medical community’s not prepared for it," Gunn explained. "They don’t know how to help us, but I can tell you that you have to be your own advocate,” she said.

Gunn said she’d also like to see the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration create regulations to make keyless ignition vehicles safer. She suggested separate on and off buttons.

Change on a national level?

According to the president of motor vehicle safety research firm Safety Research and Strategies, Inc. Ford and General Motors have installed auto shut-offs in their keyless models.

Until change comes at the national level, however, Gunn hopes her story will alert other keyless ignition auto owners to the risk of carbon monoxide exposure and that they take measures to protect themselves.

Dierdorff encourages Pasco residents, especially those with keyless ignition vehicles or gas appliances, to get carbon monoxide detectors for their homes.

PCFR’s carbon monoxide monitors have alerted crews to the presence of the gas four times since they were rolled out in September.