Thursday, November 18, 2010

Prepare For The Worst! Power Outages

"A little to the left Jim!" Image:
            Like any sensible human being with half a brain, I fear natural disasters and hazards. Maybe I’m paranoid, but it makes no sense to me why no one in their spare time would think about possible natural disaster scenarios in their area and devise some sort of plan (even a half-baked one) about what to do in case of disaster.

While it is each individual's responsibility to prepare for the worst, it is upon the local government to inform people of what they should fear, what people need to do to prepare, and do everything in it’s power to make sure their citizens are able to stay out of harms way, stay safe, and have necessary resources available to them.

Of course, even with all the planning and preparation a city can do, there are still going to be people who are completely unprepared, or stand around twiddling their thumbs while the rest of us are running in the opposite direction. These people make me wonder how they haven’t fallen into an open manhole, into the tiger pit at the zoo, off a cliff, or opened the emergency door mid-flight and fallen to the earth below (I assume these people fall down often). While natural selection does it’s work eliminating some of these people from our species, there are still plenty out there and many of them have access to video cameras (as evidenced by spending five minutes on YouTube).

Out of curiosity and boredom, I took a look at advisories regarding preparation and response plans should a natural disaster hit my area, the wonderful, majestic Pacific Northwest. The first thing you should know about the Pacific Northwest is that we are at risk by just about every natural disaster known to man. On one side of us, we have the expansive, forever blue Pacific Ocean and on the other side we have the majestic Cascade Mountains. While these are wonderful sights to behold, they are also reminders that they can destroy us all. Sure, that ocean is pretty, but it’s not so pretty when it swells into a 100 foot tall wall of death. Oh yea, that mountain is gorgeous, until it blows out on one side and a molten river of mud and debris swallows your house (not to mention your whole town and any and all living things in a fifty mile radius). Just for good measure, let me remind you that all the main cities in the Pacific Northwest were built along one of the most active fault lines on the planet, our good friend, the San Andreas Fault.

All in all, I hope that in reading this you feel a bit more prepared and educated in the event that you are caught in some sort of natural disaster. Ideally, after reading this, you won’t doom yourself or those around you with actions that make no sense in critical situations. After the jump is part one in my series on natural disasters: Power Outages.

Power Outages 
First up in my series of natural disasters are power outages. This one is more of a result of greater hazards such as, winter/thunderstorms, but they are no doubt a hazard in themselves, beyond the fact that you can’t update your Twitter or Facebook status. Most of us have been through a power outage at one time or another. This is not typically life threatening because most power companies fix the problem within a day or two. However, the power company cannot control whatever threats your direct family might pose when locked in your home together for 24-72 hours. If the outage is for more than three days though, things can get a bit dicey. Here’s the pamphlet (PDF file, just right click, then "Save as", you'll thank me later) that SCL provides outlining what to do in the event that you are in a power outage.

Though many of us will never be in the dire situation of having a live, sparking, high voltage wire of death lying across our car hood, a vast majority of us will have to deal with a power outage at some point or another. While many of them will be brief and not terribly life threatening, except for those who are addicted to online games like World of Warcraft, some may last many days and it’s important to be prepared for these situations.

Our fine friends at Seattle City Light (SCL), along with most other areas, recommend having this long list of items stocked in your home:  a working flashlight, lantern, matches, glow-in-the-dark stick lights, wind-up clock, portable radio, manual can opener and Mylar blanket, drinking water (one gallon per person per day), dry or canned food, first aid materials and a supply of family members' prescription medications, and additional Mylar blankets for all family members. That’s quite a list of supplies. Rambo took down multiple Southeast Asian armies with less, and won.
Mylar Blankets
When I first read this list, I thought it was pretty solid, until I really thought about it. I started to wonder, “What the hell is a Mylar blanket anyway?” Then, like anyone does nowadays, I strolled down to my local library and checked out a book about the topic…just kidding. I actually made myself a plate of nachos and performed a Google search, all while not wearing any pants.

Mylar blankets are not an item you hear about everyday, that’s for sure. I guarantee that you’ve never spoken this sentence, “Honey, grab me the Mylar blanket, it’s a bit chilly in here.” So, when I looked into this Mylar blanket thing. I learned it’s a very thin plastic and metal blanket made from a polyester film called, Biaxially-oriented polyethylene terephthalate (BoPET), which has all sorts of fun properties and uses, which coats a reflective metal, often time this is aluminum. This make Mylar blankets reflect up to 97 percent of radiated heat, 99 percent of light that hits it is reflected off. Plus, it’s also water/windproof. It is most often used to prevent hypothermia, but can also be used as shade in extreme heat. Pretty cool, huh?

Of course it’s cool, it was originally developed for NASA and everything awesome or ridiculous is always originally developed for or by NASA. In fact, NASA even made an annual publication to celebrate all of the everyday products people use that contain materials originally developed by them, called Spinoff. When you can publish a yearly magazine of your accomplishments that people use everyday, you know you’re doing good work. Mylar blankets are often referred to as “space blankets” because of their development for NASA. Mylar is actually a brand name. Of course, it isn’t really much of a blanket either, considering it’s so thin, but “BoPET sheet” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Sounds more like some electronic pet’s potty mat.

One last note about SCL’s power outage preparedness list, I think that it’s missing one practical thing is essential to getting through a power outage with your family. I think board games are a must when you’re stuck inside with your family because of a storm. I recommend Chess or Parcheesi. What? You don’t know how to play either of those games? Even better! You can kill even more time just learning how to play these complicated games. Besides, what else are you going to do with your time inside during a power outage? Sit around and talk to your family?

The Final Destination Scenario 
One interesting section towards the end of the SCL's pamphlet outlines what to do in the rare case a downed power line ends up on your car while you are in it. Kind of like this memorable scene in the movie Final Destination, hence why I named it the Final Destination Scenario. Around the 5 minute mark Devon Sawa’s character is surprisingly knowledgeable about what to do in this situation. He must have studied up on informative pamphlets provided by his local power service. We should all strive be more educated like him. Well, except for the grabbing live power lines with our bare hands part. SCL advises against that. As well as anyone with common sense.

SCL says that if Final Destination Scenario you should stay inside and call 911 for help. If you absolutely have to leave the vehicle because of an emergency, such as a fire, your favorite TV show is starting in ten minutes, or you’re stuck listening to a Buffalo Bills game, SCL advises you to avoid touching the car and the ground at the same time. This is because if you touch the electrified car, or any other electrified object, and the ground at the same time you will be shocked. The reason for this, according to the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PGE), an energy provider for northern and southern California, is because if one part of your body touches a high-voltage zone (the car), while another part of your body touches a low-voltage zone (the ground), you will become a conductor for electricity (which is bad).

Fun fact! PGE is the same fine company who owns the naming rights for a PGE Park in Portland, OR. The current home of the expanison MLS Soccer team, the Portland Timbers and the now former home of the Portland Beavers, who were the minor league affiliate for the San Diego Padres, but are now currently homeless. Is is ironic that a team of loggers has muscled a team of beavers out of their own home which they built? Nope, it's just historically accurate.

So, PGE and SCL both advice people to jump out of the car then hop or shuffle at least 20 feet away, keeping your feet together. Now, this seems sort of unorthodox, but the reasoning seems pretty sound. Electricity can spread through the ground in a circle with the voltage dropping as it spreads. So, if you stood with one foot toward the outside and another closer to the wire, you could have one foot in a low voltage zone and another in a high voltage zone, which as we’ve established, is bad. If you need more instruction on how to handle a downed power line on your car, here’s an informative (and slightly amusing) video made by Walton EMC in Monroe, GA.

Walton EMC is a non-profit community owned electric company that serves multiple counties in rural Georgia. Between making safety videos, they also hold coloring contests and have a link on their website to “Report an Outage.” When a person's power is out, something tells me that they’re going to have trouble reporting it using their computer.

The lady in the video should seem a bit more concerned in her current state of events but I’m less concerned with her bad acting and more so with her decision making skills. First of all, if you notice when she is getting ready to hop out of her car she is touching the outside of the electrified car. This doesn’t seem like a good idea, especially if she were to slip and put herself in contact with the ground and the car at the same time. A typical situation when a power line is down, like during a storm, would make it very likely that it would be slippery. However, I give her style points for her bunny hop though. Also, if you are in this situation without a cell phone to call 911, well, good luck. Better get started practicing that bunny hop now, Peter Cottontail.

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