Part of the Washington County Detention Center now has carbon monoxide detectors and the rest of the facility should have them within the next two weeks, a jail administrator said Thursday.
Leighta Laitinen, spokeswoman for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said Fleenor Security was able to install detectors in the newer portion of the jail a couple weeks ago.
“And in the older part, that was built back in ’95, it was a little harder to find something that would interface with those existing fire panels so it’s taken a little longer,” she said. “We had to go through two different companies, but we finally found a match.”
Carbon monoxide was released into two cell blocks one Saturday in late June. Fifty-one inmates were housed there at the time. The carbon monoxide was released when a gas-powered water heater was not burning properly and vents designed to open when the heater operated did not open. This caused the carbon monoxide to be recirculated into the ventilation.
Dozens of inmates were sickened from the invisible, odorless gas.
In addition to the inmates, one detention officer became ill and was treated with oxygen at the jail. One inmate was unconscious during the incident and was taken to Johnson City Medical Center for treatment.
Officers became aware of the problem after several inmates began complaining about headaches and nausea. Inmates in the affected areas were removed and treated with oxygen as needed.
No carbon monoxide detectors were at the jail. Those devices are not required by the state.
Originally, a quote of $30,000 to $40,000 was given as the estimated cost of installing carbon monoxide detectors. But the whole project, for both old and new parts of the jail, came in at less than $10,000.
“And we were actually pleasantly surprised,” Laitinen said. “It was much cheaper than we had originally anticipated. So we were lucky on that.”
Detectors for the older part of the jail are ordered and should be in place in the next two weeks.
The jail already has smoke and fire detectors in place. The carbon monoxide detectors will tie in to the fire alarm system so that everything can be monitored from one location.
“The reason we wanted to do it that way is the fire panel comes in to that central control, where there’s somebody sitting there 24/7,” Laitinen said.
Carbon monoxide detectors may not be required, but some jails already have them in place.
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley admitted he was unsure if Unicoi County’s jail facilities — the county jail in downtown Erwin and the Unicoi County Jail Annex — had carbon monoxide detectors in place.
But Hensley said when he heard about the June incident at the WCDC, he called Unicoi County jail officials to make sure detectors had been installed.
“It did concern me when I heard this, and I did check,” Hensley said. “We did have them.”
Hensley said it was a “relief” to hear that both facilities already had carbon monoxide detectors in place but, if they had not, Hensley said devices would have been installed that day.
Erwin Bureau Chief Brad Hicks contributed to this report.