Vanessa Robinson’s life was turned upside down in 2010 when she lost her sons – Chase, eight, and Tyler, six – to carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of a faulty gas heater in their home in Mooroopna, north of Melbourne. Vanessa spoke with Master Plumbers’ Radio recently to tell her story and promote the importance of regular maintenance of all gas appliances, especially those in your home.
DANIEL At the time of your accident, there would have been little to no knowledge for the community on what carbon monoxide poisoning was and how it can affect people.
VANESSA That’s right. I was in hospital and took a little bit to sort of comprehend exactly what happened because I was in a coma for a little bit and obviously quite unwell. When I was fully advised about how my children died, I was completely astonished, shocked and obviously traumatised because I just couldn’t comprehend how something that I’ve used for my entire duration of my life was dangerous.
I always had the understanding that there could be a potential explosion from gas but never had I heard of carbon monoxide poisoning, except for in the movies where people have intentionally caused harm to themselves.
DANIEL I can’t even begin to imagine your mindset as a result of such a horrific event. How were you able to get through something like that and then start a charity (The Chase and Tyler Foundation)?
VANESSA I wanted to take action right there and then, and I knew that I just couldn’t sit back and watch this happen to other people, so as soon as I was well enough to be discharged, I contacted my local member, Dr Sharman Stone, and asked for her help to make sure that this never happened again.
With the help of Dr Stone, our messaging passed through (Victorian) Parliament, received bipartisan support and led to the creation of the gas safety strategy. I also presented to Energy Safe Victoria, and we created a TV commercial – Carbon Monoxide the Silent Killer. It was a really emotional video that engaged our community members to identify the risk in their homes and to take action.
Then I got onto social media and started a Facebook page, which was to create carbon monoxide awareness throughout our communities. It was a nice cheap, free resource that I could manage and a good starting point to engage people and create that awareness. Especially when it was just myself doing it at this point and I had absolutely no money. At the end of 2011 we officially initiated The Chase and Tyler Foundation.
DANIEL Many of the appliances, like the one responsible for the death of your sons, are found in public housing and rental properties. What advice do you have for the people who find themselves in that position? What actions can they take to keep their homes and their families safe?
VANESSA There’s a recommendation from Energy Safe Victoria and REIV that the gas appliances should be serviced at least every two years. I think that the first step would be, contacting your landlord or agent and asking, and I would send an email, which is written evidence. Contact them and ask when the gas service was last conducted on your appliance. And if indeed, if it was longer than two years, put a request immediately in for that to be serviced.
Also, don’t use it. I know it’s a little bit hard, but don’t use the gas heater until it has been serviced. Essentially, with a lot of unsafe gas appliances out there at the moment, especially when we’re talking about open flued gas appliances, you really just don’t want to take that risk, so make sure you have that service before use.
Make sure the person who comes to service your appliance is a Type A gasfitter, so they could come under a header of a gasfitter or a plumber. Sometimes I think that confuses consumers into who to select, but they need to have type A gas appliance servicing on the back of their license.
These people are qualified and licensed to actually go into service your gas appliance, your gas heater especially. They’ve had training with Master Plumbers, Energy Safe Victoria, and Victorian Building Authority, so they’re aware of how to conduct carbon monoxide spilling tests as well as the full, complete process when servicing your appliances, which now includes certainly negative pressure testing.
When you’re utilising people who are unqualified, it is a risk to your life. So this is why it’s fundamental to ensure you’re getting somebody who is appropriately skilled in this area.