Power outages a vulnerable time for fire, carbon monoxide poisoning

Tara Bradbury
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Fire chief gives tips to stay safe

When the power goes out, the focus is on getting heat and light to your family, but blackouts are a vulnerable time — tragedy is more likely to strike during a power outage than on a typical day, particularly when it comes to fire and carbon monoxide poisoning, says a fire chief.

Fire Chief Vince MacKenzie

Early Monday morning, a couple in Bonavista died in their home after a fire broke out, the cause of which is still under investigation.

According to Vince MacKenzie, fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor and president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services, there have been nine cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in the eastern portion of the island since the power outages began; one of those cases resulted in a death.

MacKenzie says he was afraid that would happen, and that’s why he had taken to Twitter over the past three days, tweeting safety tips for those experiencing a lack of power.

“The key message I’ve been trying to get out is one of prevention,” MacKenzie told The Telegram Monday afternoon.

Carbon monoxide is created by anything that burns fossils fuels such as propane, kerosene or butane, including generators, camping stoves and vehicles (with the exception of things made to be used inside the home).

Carbon monoxide poisoning can take effect in 10 minutes, and is lethal at a very low level, MacKenzie says.

It’s easier for the bloodstream to absorb than oxygen, and takes a long time to leave the body. Its effect is also cumulative and will stay in a house until it is ventilated out.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can trigger flu-like symptoms and disorientation before making people fall asleep and, possibly, die, MacKenzie says.


Hazards rise

The risk of fire is increased during a power outage for a number of reasons, he says. Outages generally happen without notice, and if a person is cooking, they may forget to turn off their stove. When the power comes back, the stove reheats and can ignite.

Others try inventing alternate sources of heat by rigging up generators and electrical wiring that is not up to code, starting a blaze.

“There’s also the use of candles and other things that were commonly used 100 years ago, when people knew how to be safe with them, but we’re not used to using every day,” MacKenzie says.

“When there’s a power outage, you might have the drapes closed or blankets around (which can easily be ignited).”

MacKenzie promotes the use of battery-operated smoke detectors, and says generators and Coleman stoves should not be used inside a house.

Here are some more of his tips, as he he has posted on Twitter over the past few days. You can follow him at @FirechiefVince:

• Rain is on the way today. It will be warmer and street drainage will possibly be an issue. You can help by clearing street drains of snow.

•Wood furnaces use electricity to adjust draft and move heated air; overheating of the plenum is possible if the power fails. Stay vigilant.

•  Candle with caution: they need to be on stable bases that won’t tip over. Do not place under shelves or cupboards as heat rises.

•    Heat out a long time so frozen pipes are likely. Do not use torches and heat guns to thaw. Pipes conduct heat to hidden areas and fire likely.

•    Refuel generators carefully and be careful not to spill fuel on hot exhaust systems. Shut them off! Let them cool, then refuel.

•   Power out a long time? Check your stove to ensure it wasn’t left on and is clear when you lost power and may start a fire.

•   Check on a handicapped neighbour, they may have dead batteries in wheelchairs and portable phones and not be able to call for help.

•    Leaving your home because of no heat? To prevent freezing you can shut off the main basement valve then open the lowest tap to drain the water.

•    Never operate a vehicle in an attached garage to keep warm. A high volume of deadly carbon monoxide can enter your home.

•    Do not connect ad hoc generators to your home electrical system. Power (from) generators can travel back the system and harm Newfoundland Power workers.

•    If your power is off, shut off your heaters and hot water tanks. That will assist in a successful startup.

•   Electrical smoke alarms do not work during power outages unless they have battery backup. A battery-operated smoke alarm is recommended.



Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services, Newfoundland Power

Geographic location: Bonavista

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