A "fluke" weather condition Dec. 21 set off detectors across the city, sending the fire department scrambling to more than 1,800 "nuisance calls" from residents whose detectors had registered unsafe levels of the deadly gas in their homes.
"This is a marketer's nightmare," said David Fergusson, VP-marketing and sales at American Sensors, a Toronto-based maker of the detectors.
False alarms have been a recurring problem since Chicago's landmark ordinance mandating carbon monoxide detectors in all homes using gas furnaces took effect Oct. 1, but the problem soared to new heights Dec. 21.
Since Oct. 1, the city has logged more than 8,400 carbon monoxide alarm calls, 86% of which were false, said detector marketer Nighthawk Systems.
That Colorado Springs, Colo., company took advantage of the Dec. 21 outbreak by distributing news releases attacking the sensitivity of detectors sold by First Alert.
First Alert, based in suburban Aurora, Ill., claims to account for more than half the carbon monoxide detectors sold in Chicago.
First Alert took out a page "open letter" ad from Lois/USA in the Chicago Tribune Dec. 27, explaining the problem and offering a full refund to dissatisfied customers. That offer could cost the company millions.
American Sensors ran a print and radio campaign from CPC Loyalty Communications, Toronto. The advertising emphasized that "the most important message is that not all carbon monoxide detectors are alike."
The Dec. 21 gas buildup was caused by a thermal inversion, which occurred when a layer of cold air trapped warm air and pollutants, like carbon monoxide, close to land.