Winter storm safety

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Snow and ice storms can lead to downed power lines and outages. Remember the following tips to stay safe and warm should you find yourself in the dark after severe winter weather:

  • Never touch a fallen power line, and assume all wires are electrically charged. Call your electric cooperative to report it immediately. Avoid contact with overhead lines during cleanup and other activities.
  • In the event of an outage, an alternate heating source — such as a fireplace, propane space heater, or wood stove — may be used, but treat any of those with caution, and make sure spaces are properly ventilated to avoid deadly carbon monoxide buildup.
  • Make sure carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors are working properly. Testing each once a month by pressing the TEST button is the safest bet.
  • Do not use a gas-powered oven for heating because it might go out or burn inefficiently, leading to carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Do not use a gas or charcoal grill inside the home, and do not use charcoal briquettes in the fireplace.
  • If you use a portable generator to power a heating source, be sure the generator is located outside your house in an open area that’s sheltered from precipitation and moisture. Never use a generator in an attached garage — it’s still too close and could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Follow manufacturer’s directions for operation of the unit.
  • Take special care not to overload a generator. Use appropriately sized extension cords to carry the electric load. Make sure the cords have a grounded, three-pronged plug and are in good condition.
  • Never connect generators to power lines. The reverse flow of electricity can electrocute an unsuspecting utility worker.

Ideally, your family will stay warm until the power comes back on. But keep an eye on family members for signs of hypothermia, which include shivering, drowsiness, and mental and physical slowness. The elderly and young children are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia. Call 911 immediately if you notice these symptoms. Try to have at least one mobile phone in the house that does not depend on electricity.

Sources: Consumer Product Safety Commission; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Ag Safety Database; Electrical Safety Foundation International

Chris Grammes writes on writes on safety issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.