Preparedness: Power Outage

September is National Preparedness Month and each week we’re looking at different disasters that should be prepared for.  This week we’re talking about power outages.

On the morning of August 14th, 2003, no one foresaw how that day would test their preparedness against disasters and put millions of people’s emergency plans into action.  Just after 4:10 PM a cascading voltage drop, caused by a software bug and power lines coming into contact with tree limbs, led to a blackout that put roughly 55 million people in the dark.

This event didn’t just affect people’s abilities to turn on lights and keep their food cold but also took down communications infrastructure.  Many cellular systems failed when generators ran out of fuel, cable television systems went offline until their home offices regained power, and Internet connectivity similarly went down causing those that relied on Internet connectivity for news and communications to be left in the dark.  Amateur radio operators in Suffolk County, NY, handled roughly 500 pieces of traffic of which the majority was health-and-welfare traffic.

The power outage affected New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario.  At least ten deaths are attributed to the outage and New York City Fire Department handled 60 “all-hands” fires that were caused by people using candles for illumination.

Lessons learned

In the aftermath of the Northeast US blackout of 2003, we learned some lessons that can help prevent further emergencies while reducing the load on emergency services.

Before a power outage

  • To begin preparing, you should build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan.
  • Follow energy conservation measures to keep the use of electricity as low as possible, which can help power companies avoid imposing rolling power outages.
  • Fill plastic containers with water and place them in the refrigerator and freezer if there’s room. Leave about an inch of space inside each one, because water expands as it freezes. This chilled or frozen water will help keep food cold during a temporary power outage, by displacing air that can warm up quickly with water or ice that keeps cold for several hours without additional refrigeration.
  • Be aware that most medication that requires refrigeration can be kept in a closed refrigerator for several hours without a problem. If unsure, check with your physician or pharmacist.
  • Keep your car tank at least half full because gas stations rely on electricity to power their pumps.
  • Know where the manual release lever of your electric garage door opener is located and how to operate it. Garage doors can be heavy, so know that you may need help to lift it.
  • Keep a key to your house with you if you regularly use the garage as the primary means of entering your home, in case the garage door will not open.

During a power outage

  • Use only flashlights for emergency lighting. NEVER use candles during a power outage due to extreme risk of fire.
  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed to keep your food as fresh as possible. If you must eat food that was refrigerated or frozen, check it carefully for signs of spoilage.
  • Turn off or disconnect appliances, equipment (like air conditioners) or electronics in use when the power went out. Power may return with momentary “surges” or “spikes” that can damage computers as well as motors in appliances like the air conditioner, refrigerator, washer or furnace.
  • Do not run a generator inside a home or garage.
  • Do not connect a generator to a home’s electrical system.  If you use a generator, connect the equipment you want to run directly to the outlets on the generator.
  • Listen to local radio and to a battery- or generator-powered television for updated information.
  • Leave on one light so that you’ll know when your power returns.
  • Use the telephone for emergencies only. Listen to a portable radio for the latest information.
  • Do not call 9-1-1 for information—call only to report a life-threatening emergency. Use the phone for life-threatening emergencies only.
  • Take steps to remain cool if it is hot outside. In intense heat when the power may be off for a long time, consider going to a movie theater, shopping mall or “cooling shelter” that may be open in your community. If you remain at home, move to the lowest level of your home, since cool air falls. Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing. Drink plenty of water, even if you do not feel thirsty.
  • Put on layers of warm clothing if it is cold outside. Never burn charcoal for heating or cooking indoors. Never use your oven as a source of heat. If the power may be out for a prolonged period, plan to go to another location (the home of a relative or friend, or a public facility) that has heat to keep warm.
  • Provide plenty of fresh, cool water for your pets.
  • Eliminate unnecessary travel, especially by car. Traffic signals will stop working during an outage, creating traffic congestion.
  • Remember that equipment such as automated teller machines (ATMs) and elevators may not work during a power outage.

After a power outage

  • Throw away any food that has been exposed to temperatures 40° F (4° C) for 2 hours or more or that has an unusual odor, color or texture. When in doubt, throw it out!
  • Never taste food or rely on appearance or odor to determine its safety. Some foods may look and smell fine, but if they have been at room temperature too long, bacteria causing food-borne illnesses can start growing quickly. Some types of bacteria produce toxins that cannot be destroyed by cooking.
  • If food in the freezer is colder than 40° F and has ice crystals on it, you can refreeze it.
  • If you are not sure food is cold enough, take its temperature with the food thermometer. Throw out any foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers) that have been exposed to temperatures higher than 40° F (4° C) for 2 hours or more, and any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture, or feels warm to touch.

Communications

Amateur radio operators are likely to be better prepared for a communication outage since we utilize communication methods that are both efficient (little bandwidth, less power consumption) and don’t require Internet or other commercial infrastructure to function.

There are some basic things we need to take into consideration, however:

  • Have a battery available to run your radios.  Generators are great but you might not want to run the generator constantly.  A battery will keep your radios on the air even in the absence of a generator.  It is also important to have a means of charging that battery (generator, solar panels, your car’s alternator).
  • Have the ability to charge your HT using DC voltage.  Having a cigarette lighter charger for your HT means be able to charge your radio up using your battery or your vehicle.  This goes for your cellular phone as well.  Goal Zero sells small solar charging units that can charge up your cellular phone and AA or AAA batteries for your HT.
  • Know how to send and receive messages.  It’s great that amateur radio has the ability to move messages around in the event of an emergency but if you don’t know how to utilize these networks they are of no use to you.  The best way to learn and understand and be able to use these networks fluently is to participate in them regularly.
  • Know your county’s emergency plans and what frequencies to monitor.  Know that during power outages local infrastructure, such as repeaters and digipeaters, may not be available and HF operations may be the best.
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