Resort Aims To Tackle CO Enforcement Dilemma

OCEAN CITY – Town officials may have sent the message that they won’t tolerate non-compliance with Ocean City’s rather proactive carbon monoxide (CO) law, but the sheer size of the enforcing that message could be the tripping point.

Fire Marshal Sam Villani conceded in June, after the first of two carbon monoxide leaks in Ocean City this summer, that his office doesn’t have the man power to inspect every hotel or condominium that should be in compliance with the town of Ocean City’s 2007 ordinance, which requires CO detectors in all “multi-family dwelling units, and units which have fuel burning equipment.”

“The enforcement strategies study is ongoing at this time, and I have a couple more meetings in the next couple of days and will then decide what strategy to recommend to the council on Sept. 1,” said Villani.

This week, Villani and others from the Fire Marshal’s Office did random sweeps in a three-block radius in downtown Ocean City to see if businesses were complying with the town’s law. However, Villani has not released information concerning his investigation’s findings.

After last week’s CO leak at the still-closed 10th Street Americana Hotel, where more than 100 people had to be evacuated, town officials have been scrambling to devise a more efficient way to ensure that the town’s law isn’t just something that looks good on paper.

“It’s incumbent on the properties to make sure that they have the detectors in place,” said Council President Joe Mitrecic. “We can only legislate so much and then common sense has to kick in. If I owned a hotel, no one would have to tell me to put a detector in, because it’s just the right thing to do, period.”

Mitrecic also noted that Ocean City is actually “well ahead of the curve” when it comes to any sort of law pertaining to carbon monoxide, as less than half of the 50 states address the issue by way of legislation, and the vast majority of those who do only require detectors to be placed in new buildings.

Maryland’s CO law deals primarily with CO detectors being required for new construction, but it does give municipalities the right to apply stricter guidelines.

After the tragic deaths of a Pennsylvania man and his daughter at the Days Inn in 2006, the Mayor and City Council instilled a much stricter ordinance than perhaps they originally thought.

“We did some calling around and were not able to find any city, town, county or state with a law as strict as ours,” said City Manager Dennis Dare. “Most laws deal only with new construction and don’t deal with retrofitting older construction. So, it is kind of ironic that we have been criticized for non-compliance when so many places don’t even have the law.”

Mayor Rick Meehan mirrored Dare’s sentiments by recalling the difficulty in the creation of the town’s current law, as town officials couldn’t find anything to pattern it after.

“You will not find one that is as strict as ours, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of the neighboring municipalities don’t even have one,” said Meehan. “At least we are trying to address the problem.”

In 1990, US Congress passed a law that requires smoke detectors in all hotel rooms, but there is no such mandate existing in any state for carbon monoxide detectors, despite the gas being far more toxic and a single incident can result in multiple fatalities.

A recent study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine said that only 11 percent of hotel chains have installed carbon monoxide detectors in rooms. In that same study, it found that faulty furnaces and boilers used to heat guest rooms or provide hot water caused the CO leaks 66 percent of the time, while boiler heating systems used for indoor pools or spas caused 24 percent.

Ocean City is known for having a wide array of accommodations choices, from five-star giants to the quaintest of vintage beachfront hotels that date back 50 years or more. Simple assumption have led some to believe that older properties could be more prone to a CO leak than a newer structure, but Mitrecic said he doesn’t agree with that.

“For the most part, we have respectable and hardworking property owners in Ocean City, but in this case, it appears we have a few who are penny wise and pound foolish,” said Mitrecic, “but you can’t profile older buildings just because they are older, because the leak at the Days Inn that killed those two people was a practically new machine.”

Truly, a Munchkin 199 model water heater proved to be the origin of the deadly toxic gas that took the life of Patrick and Kelly Boughter in 2006. Reports on the case said that the heating system was sold to the hotel in 2005, making the system less than a year old at the time of the incident.

Looking ahead, however, Councilman Doug Cymek said that he is confident that the City Council will adhere to Villani’s recommendation when he comes before them at the next work session with a direction for the ordinance’s enforcement.

“Again, the type of inspections, either random or planned is something we are studying. Yes, the undertaking is massive, with over 29,000 units that may in fact need a CO detector. We are again studying the inspection and enforcement process because each building in Ocean City is different,” Villani said.

Meehan said that the temporary poor publicity that the resort has received for the unfortunate incident at the Americana and the El Capitan could prove to be a benefit in the realm of public safety for the future.

“The Americana is probably the exception and not the rule,” said Meehan. “We have a good ordinance, and we are going to work to make sure we prevent future problems and incidents like this from occurring in our town.”