The headlines have screamed across the front page ofThe Newsthis year. “Carbon Monoxide: The Invisible Threat,” page 1, February 12. “CO Deaths, Injuries in Winter 2001,” page 1, March 5.

In the latter story, author Jim Norland made a valid point in his opening paragraph: “While some segments of the industry are debating whether or not carbon monoxide alarms should be mandated in residential structures, this winter there is little doubt that unintentional CO poisoning from appliances needs to be addressed in some form.”

We should all agree with that assessment. Who knows, with a CO detector in place, 47-year-old Dennis Fuller and his 79-year-old father, Richard, could still be alive today. Instead, employees of Monrovia, CA, contractor Air-Tro, Inc. are still mourning the loss of their long-time field supervisor, who died along with his father from carbon monoxide poisoning.

It’s another sad story.


Air-Tro president Bob Helbing suspected something was not right on Monday, Feb. 19. One of his most steady employees of 13 years had not reported to work. He knew that Dennis Fuller had gone with his father to their vacation home in Lake Arrowhead, CA, over the weekend. The house on Cimarron Lane in the mountain resort town was a favorite vacation spot for the close-knit family. When it was discovered that Dennis’ fiancée, Debbie Boyd, had not reported to her work either, calls were made to find out what was going on.

Such concern saved at least one life.

A family friend went to check on the vacation house and was shocked once inside. Richard Fuller was motionless, sitting upright on the living room sofa on the second floor. Dennis Fuller was found lying on the floor of the first floor den. Boyd, however, was awakened in the master bedroom on the top floor of the three-story house. Paramedics were immediately called to the scene but were unable to revive the Fullers.

Boyd was taken to Mountains Community Hospital in Lake Arrowhead, where she was released the following day. Had she not been discovered that Monday evening, officials believe she would have been the third victim of the colorless, odorless gas.


San Bernardino County Fire Marshall Peter Brierty had initially speculated the deadly gas accumulated in the three-story house because the furnace was broken. However, when Donn Capps, an installation manager with Air-Tro and close friend of Dennis Fuller, examined the equipment in question, the body of a dead squirrel was discovered in the furnace flue. Apparently, it had completely blocked the 6-in.-dia. vent pipe.

“It’s the only ventilation source,” said Capps.

When the furnace was turned on, no heat or exhaust came out of the vent pipe, so Capps and a few Air-Tro employees took it apart. The squirrel was found lying at the bottom.

“When we looked in that hole, we could just see a solid ball of fur down there,” said Capps.

He noted that a vent screen over the pipe could have prevented the squirrel from climbing inside.

“It was a tragic accident,” he said. “They didn’t have a chance.”

Family members hope others learn from the accident.

“Check and see if you have a vent cap on top (of vent pipes),” warned Dennis’ brother, Robert Fuller.

Yes, carbon monoxide detectors placed near the floor might have also prevented the fatal accident.

“It’s a one-in-a-million thing,” said Robert Fuller. “Everything was fine up there, until one day…”


If anything good can come out of something so tragic, Excellence Alliance, Inc. (EAI) and Air-Tro are trying to make that happen.

“Dennis was our top technician — and more,” said Helbing. “He was an encyclopedia of hvac knowledge, a brilliant troubleshooter, meticulous and patient. He was also charming, friendly, and a wonderful teacher.

“Three years ago I made Dennis our field supervisor and gave him one mission: to train our other 20 technicians to be more like him. Dennis is truly and sorely missed.”

The day after the lifeless bodies were found, Helbing held a morning meeting with his 60 employees and let them know that he was starting a collection for the Fuller family. In a matter of days, over $2,100 was collected.

“What really surprised me was that some of our customers donated,” said Air-Tro’s president. “It was very moving to see that kind of response.”

Because Air-Tro is a member of EAI, Helbing thought it was best to donate the collection to the Excellence Alliance Foundation (EAF) in Dennis Fuller’s name. The foundation is a nonprofit organization created to attract, educate, and develop all levels of the contracting industry’s workforce. Because Dennis Fuller worked with most of the 20-plus service technicians at Air-Tro, Helbing thought such a memorial would be appropriate.

“He was always educating the techs,” said Helbing. “He had strong tech skills and excellent people skills.”

Upon hearing about the donation to EAF, Jeff Wilmink, president of EAI, decided to match the gift and began working with the foundation to establish an ongoing scholarship in Dennis Fuller’s name. Helbing chose the Practical School in Anaheim, CA, to receive the scholarship.

“We have had good experience with that trade school,” said Helbing. “We’ve hired six or seven of their graduates and found them to be very well prepared for the industry. A scholarship fund at Practical School is especially appropriate, as Dennis worked closely with their new graduates.”


The industry will have to come to the forefront to help keep the Dennis Fuller scholarship fund alive. EAF director Vicki Yorio discovered that to create a fully endowed scholarship, $22,000-$30,000 is needed. Therefore, EAI and EAF continue to search for strategic allies and financial contributions.

“This tragic loss is felt throughout the industry,” said EAI’s Wilmink. “Excellence Alliance Foundation is proud to be the recipient of this gift and eager to establish a scholarship in Dennis’ name.”

If you can help, call EAF at 877-439-5327. Contributions are being accepted at EAF, 625 Eden Park Drive, Suite 300, Cincinnati, OH 45202. It can be $1. It can be $100. It doesn’t matter.

It’s for a good cause.

“Dennis loved the water, loved his boat,” said Valaree Ho, one of Dennis’ sisters. “He was totally fun-loving.…They were both great guys.”

Capps will miss his best friend. Dennis’ other sister, Jane, is still trying to overcome the pain.

“It seems really ironic,” she said. “He was a heating guy.”

Skaer is editor-in-chief. He can be reached at 248-244-6446, 248-362-0317 (fax); (e-mail).

Sidebar: Dennis Fuller Scholarship

For more information on how you can help the Excellence Alliance Foundation (EAF) establish an ongoing scholarship in Dennis Fuller’s name, contact EAF at 877-439-5327. Contributions are being accepted at EAF, 625 Eden Park Drive, Suite 300, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

“Dennis was a prized Air-Tro, Inc. supervisor and excelled in his role because of his patience, thoroughness, and wonderful people skills,” said Air-Tro president Bob Helbing.

Publication date: 04/09/2001