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Blog Archive: January 2015

It’s Just a Game — Except for the Life-or-Death Part

Posted January 29, 2015
Super Bowl!
Early Sunday evening, Feb. 1, streets and highways in America will be eerily quiet. Cars and trucks will be snugly garaged or parked in friends’ driveways — or in parking lots with hundreds of others, as owners find their ways to bars and restaurants with huge TV screens, cheering fans and enormous supplies of chicken wings.
And alcohol. Lots of alcohol.
  ​Photo: Drinking and driving; a matter of life-or-death.
Not everyone drinks, of course. That’s always the case. But it’s clear that many  who do tend to overdo it on this singularly American weekend, because DWI arrests spike 18-to-24 percent higher than the weekends before and after, according to the DPS Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), and they know. It’s their job to keep track of these things.
Today, Minnesota Vikings great Chuck Foreman, the running back who played in Super Bowls VIII, IX and XI (1973, ’74 and ’76), was in St. Paul to bring an important message to Minnesota Super Bowl fans. In a news conference held by OTS, he talked about his pro football experience and stressed the importance of making good calls on the field — and after the game. “We went to a lot of parties,” he said, “but when it came to driving, I knew I had to be smart.”
The decision to always drive sober was easy, he said, because making the wrong call meant risking his career and his life — or someone else’s.
And he’s right. There are only a few reasonable options when it comes to alcohol and driving, no matter what the occasion is. Choosing the one that works for you involves something you do anyway, whenever you go anywhere — it’s just planning. It’s easier, in fact, than deciding what to wear, which restaurant to go to, or who you want with you, because the options are limited to three:
  • You choose to drive, and stay sober.
  • You choose to drink, and find a sober driver.
  • You choose to drink, and stay put until you’re sober enough to drive.
Foreman enumerated reasons for making a choice and sticking to it. Some have to do with personal responsibility and doing the right thing. There is also the horrifying possibility — and the odds are higher than you might think — of injuring or killing yourself or someone else. Another, less compelling but expensive reason is the extra DWI patrols that will be on Minnesota roads this weekend, actively looking for people who choose to drive drunk. On average, based on previous years, they’ll arrest 190 people who made the wrong choice.
The Super Bowl is a great American tradition, and for football fans, it’s time to party. But afterward, with the winner determined, fans of the losing team will tell themselves, “It’s only a game.”
And it is — until you hit the road. At that point, it becomes a matter of life-or-death. So choose your clothes, choose your venue and choose your companions. Then choose to live.  Drive sober this weekend.

It Absolutely Won’t Happen — So Be Ready Anyway

Posted January 26, 2015
Ask a seasoned firefighter what people say when their homes and belongings are destroyed by fire. Chances are you’ll be told they’re in shock, and they keep repeating something like, “I can’t believe this is happening to me!”
That seems normal. It’s hard to imagine the feeling of watching your home go up in smoke, but it’s easy to believe that despair and disbelief would be involved. There’s no way to prepare, emotionally, for that kind of loss.
​Photo: Prepare yourself to lessen
the chances of a home fire.
 But there are ways to prepare to handle the practical aspects of a home fire — things like what to do before and what to do afterward. Attention to those issues, right now, might reduce anxiety…then. You know…after what is absolutely never going to happen to you happens anyway.
The before rules are pretty black-and-white. Can you check them off?
  • Smoke alarms installed; batteries tested and replaced regularly
  • Carbon monoxide alarms installed; batteries tested and replaced regularly
  • Proper types of fire extinguishers stored in the proper places
  • Everyone knows how to call 9-1-1
  • Home escape plan developed, with two ways out for everyone and safe meeting place
  • Escape plan practiced twice a year (including kids & pets)
  • Homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy reviewed and updated annually (and make sure you understand it)
These should be stored in a fireproof box, accessible online, or kept outside your home:
  • Up-to-date lists of home contents and valuables, with photos or video (include the garage)
  • Receipts for very valuable itemsCopies of credit cards, legal documents, prescriptions and insurance information
  • Contents of your laptop on an external hard drive or an online backup service
  • An extra set of eyeglasses; extra set of car keys; little things you can’t function without for 48 hours
  • A complete list of contact numbers; if your cell phone is destroyed, you’ll need it. Include insurance agents, lawyers, doctors, pharmacies, banks, schools, business associates and others.
The “After” part of a house-fire experience, according to those who have written about it, is a difficult shock. It’s something you can learn about, though, so you’re at least slightly prepared to handle it.
In a recent New York Times article, Steven Kurutz did a great job of describing the experience of recovering from a house fire. In his piece appropriately titled, “Learn, Baby, Learn” there are valuable lessons and good advice. The victims in his examples were financially stable and well insured, and they still faced challenges nobody would expect.
The U.S. Fire Administration, part of FEMA, has an online publication called “After the Fire!” that addresses common issues in a straightforward, easy-to-read format. It covers topics like “What to Expect” and “What Do I Do Now?” and includes tips on safety and security, getting immediate help with housing, handling insurance and reading your fire investigation report.
On the Red Cross website, you’ll find “Picking up the Pieces After a Fire” — a compassionate guide that starts with “recovering emotionally,” and ends with “rebuilding,” covering everything from pets to plumbing in between.
Websites like — a sort of Wikihow for lawyers — provide advice about dealing with insurance after a disaster, and the Insurance Information Institute website contains factual information on homeowner’s insurance, renter’s insurance, how to determine what you need, and understanding your policy.
The hours immediately following a house fire can be an exhausting period of endless activity. Distraught family members, firefighters, worried neighbors, reporters and others will need your time and attention. As you try to absorb the concept of having nothing left, you’ll fare much better if you’ve prepared as well as you can.
Remember, too, that the easiest fire to handle is the one that never happens. There are plenty of things you can do to make absolutely sure that this never happens to you. 

Take Action Against Radon

Posted January 22, 2015
January is National Radon Action Month. There are several good reasons for that, the most frightful one being this: Radon is a leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S., right up there with cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke. That makes it worthwhile to spend a couple of minutes here learning about it.
radon test kit
Photo: A radon test is the only way to find out how much radon
is in your home and if you and your family are at risk.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that radon is responsible for about 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year — about 2,900 among people who have never smoked. Everyone worries about secondhand smoke — but when did you last hear someone worry aloud about their children’s exposure to radon?
Seldom happens. And hence, we have National Radon Action Month.
Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that results from the breakdown of radioactive materials quite naturally contained in most rock and soil. It tends to be concentrated in igneous (volcanic) rock, which is more common in northern Minnesota, but it’s pretty much everywhere because it travels through air and groundwater. It’s in our air, in our water, in our gardens. It’s emanating from some of our granite countertops. The stuff is what you’d call ubiquitous, and there is nothing we can do about that.
Now, the good news: (1) In most places, the concentration of radon is so light, it’s not a serious problem, and (2) it is possible to avoid exposure. That’s why the EPA list of “Things to Do” if you’re being over-exposed to radon consists of one phrase: Fix your home.
If you don’t work in a mine, then it’s probably at home, where people generally feel safest, that your exposure to radon is the greatest. And here’s where the “action” part of Radon Action Month comes in. In order to protect yourself, you have to know how much radon is in your home. To do that, you must test the air.
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has straightforward facts and instructions on their website. You can get information quickly there, read the news release on Radon Action Month, see a picture showing where radon can get into your home, and use their list of resources if you discover you have a radon problem.
You can hire someone to test your home, or order a radon test-kit online, at a discount, from one of the resources listed by MDH. The testing process isn’t complicated, and the results are important. You’ll either find out you don’t have an issue, or you’ll discover you need to act immediately to stop the radon leaks.
If you’d like to take the action one step further, post this video from the departments of Health and Public Safety to your Facebook page. It tells the story of a Minnesota woman who contracted lung cancer because of radon in her family home, and provides guidance for you to follow in testing yours.  It’s worth sharing with friends and family to make them aware of the threat from radon. As the word spreads, your actions could save some lives — and that’s the kind of action we’re talking about.

News Flash: Ice is Slippery

Posted January 15, 2015
A snowstorm occurred in Minnesota last week. From Thursday into Friday, the white stuff came down hard in parts of the state. It hit the pavement, melted, re-froze in spots and turned into sheets of ice.
That happens every winter in this part of the country, and unless the snow depth or wind speeds start setting records, Minnesotans tend to grumble, “Here we go again,” and get on with their lives.
Winter driving on I-94
Photo: Winter driving can be hazardous;
ice on the roads reduces traction.
It would be wonderful if that were the end of the story. But it’s not, because there’s an inexplicable disconnect between some Minnesotans’ practical knowledge and their driving behavior. The same people with winter survival skills honed in Minnesota — people who own three shovels, a case of HEET and a hat with ear flaps — fail to acknowledge that ice reduces traction. They seem to believe that four-wheel-drive makes tires sticky. They drive as if they’re untouchable — and unfortunately, those whose logic is fully intact (ice…slippery…slow down) must share the roads with them.
The Minnesota State Patrol responded to several hundred crashes during last week’s storm, most of which were caused by speeds too high for conditions. And four different drivers, through lack of control, attention, sobriety or common sense, smashed into four different MSP squad cars that day.
  • Trooper Kristie Sue Hathaway was in her parked Patrol squad with a driver near Eagan when it was struck from behind. Trooper Hathaway and her passenger were both injured.
  • Earlier Thursday, Trooper Ronald Williams stopped to check on a vehicle off the road, or VOR, near Virginia. He was outside his squad when he realized that the oncoming vehicle was not going to be able to stop. The trooper was not struck, fortunately, but his squad was.
  • Lt. Chris Edstrom was investigating a VOR on a ramp in Brooklyn Center that day, standing outside, checking on the other driver when his squad was struck by a vehicle traveling too fast for conditions.
  • And later, Trooper Ryan Koenen was responding to a crash west of Marshall, traveling at 5 mph with emergency lights activated because of strong winds and poor visibility. A passenger car was following the trooper when it was struck from behind by a pick-up and pushed into the trooper’s squad.
Every one of these incidents threatened lives, damaged vehicles and took working troopers off the road when they were badly needed. Each of them, along with hundreds of other crashes, took place in weather that should give pause to anyone who ever used a frozen sidewalk, much less an icy interstate highway.
No matter how big or tough your vehicle is, you just can’t stop on that stuff. The people who drove 35- and 40- mph past those crashes probably got home two hours before the drivers involved in them. They made it to their destinations with bodies and vehicles intact because they knew the secret to safe winter driving: Ice is slippery.
Pass it on. 

DWI by the Cold, Hard Numbers

Posted January 12, 2015
You may have heard about the woman who was recently discovered behind the wheel of her vehicle, parked in a State Trooper’s home driveway, with a blood alcohol concentration of .45. Her (presumably accidental) choice of places to stop and pass out made the story surprising. Amusing. Maybe saddening.  But .45 isn’t funny at all.
The legal limit for driving in Minnesota is .08, and a study at Clemson University shows .40 as lethal. There’s a built-up-tolerance factor. But the bottom line with that number is that alcohol can kill you all by itself. Throw in some car keys, and the numbers start to involve other people.
drive sober or get pulled over logoFrom Nov. 26 through Dec. 31, Minnesota law enforcement officers arrested 2,537 people driving on our roadways with blood alcohol concentrations greater than .08. That’s close to 29 people for every county in Minnesota. Naturally, more arrests occur where the population is densest. But even spread out across the state, that’s a LOT of impaired people to share the road with during one, single month. And one can safely assume that not all the impaired drivers were caught.
On Saturday, Dec. 20, 303 people were arrested in this recent campaign. If you were out shopping or celebrating with friends, you were sharing the road, at some point, with that many people who were not entirely in control of themselves because they were driving with BACs over .08. As you were driving down the road, any one of them could have turned your day or your evening into a permanent nightmare. Considered in that way, these cold, hard numbers begin to mean something — something ominous.
Here’s another number. Nearly 600,000 Minnesotans have been arrested for impaired driving. That’s about one out of every seven licensed drivers in the state. And again, not all the impaired drivers get arrested. Some of them make it home. But others lose control, fail to respond, overreact, or make some other mistake, and some of those mistakes are fatal.
Drunk driving is responsible for one out of every five traffic deaths in this state.
About 30 percent of traffic crashes (including drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists) involve alcohol in some way. You don’t have to be legally drunk to be in danger. You can hurt people — you can kill them — when your blood alcohol concentration number isn’t high enough to get you arrested.
Lots of numbers — lots of misery. Lots to think about, if you drive in Minnesota. So think this over, and share it with people you care about. Ending the problem amounts to choosing one of just two commitments.
  • Do Drive: Offer to be the sober driver. Don’t drink, and make sure everyone else gets home safely.
  • Don’t drive: Designate a sober driver, use a cab, take public transportation or stay put.
The DWI Enforcement Campaign we want to conduct is the one where officers come off the road and tell the chief there was no one to arrest, because everybody was sober. Everyone made the choice to drive, or not to drive.
The cold, hard fact is — that’s all it would take.  


Posted January 8, 2015
For the next month, according to, we’ll spend about 42 percent of our time “frigid” (below 15 degrees F) and 53 percent of it merely freezing. That’s easy to believe. Last night, in an odd geographical reversal, temperatures in Minnesota ranged from 13 below zero in the state’s southeast region to a balmy 12 below in the extreme northwest corner.
man dressed warm for winter
Photo: Dress warm to prevent frostbite.
 Some parts of the state are consistently colder than others, and thus perform an annual public service by letting millions of folks say, “Well, at least we’re not in Frostbite Falls.” (Or any of those areas inhabited by folks who can identify each other in tank tops with flip-flops, or in parkas with mukluks.)
And that brings us to the topic for today.
Frostbite is damage to skin and underlying tissue caused by freezing, and it happens when skin is exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees F.
The Process is Creepy

First the freezing forces water out of cells and the cells start to die. Then the blood vessels start to narrow to protect internal tissue, and the skin loses oxygen, causing more damage. After that, with continued exposure, blood gets thicker and stops flowing through the smallest blood vessels. Then the inflammation starts, and things get really ugly. Permanent loss of feeling and even worse conditions can result.
The speed at which skin freezes depends on lots of things — skin temp before exposure, air temperature, wind speed, altitude and moisture all contribute. With enough wind and moisture, in fact, frostbite can occur at temperatures warmer than 32 degrees. Poor circulation can speed up the damage, and protective clothing can slow it down. It’s hard to predict when frostbite will occur, but the point is this: Why take a chance?
We do have some hard facts:
1. The next few weeks in Minnesota are prime frostbite time.
2. Frostbite hurts, it’s ugly and it can cause permanent damage.
Based on those things, the best bet seems to be prevention.
Prevention is Easy
  • Check weather forecasts before you dress to go outside. There’s a difference between cold and COLD.
  • Use common sense; avoid situations like hiking or camping in extreme weather that’s beyond your experience. Don’t go anywhere without knowing where the nearest warm shelter is located.
  • Appropriate clothing and footwear are essential. Wear clothing loosely, in layers to prevent heat loss and keep your blood circulating.
  • Children lose skin heat faster than adults do; they should wear hats that cover heads and ears, and wind/water resistant coats. Everyone should cover hands (mittens, not gloves), feet and head.
  • Avoid alcohol, smoking and drugs. The alcohol won’t keep you warm, but it will cloud your judgment. Smoking negatively affects circulation.
  • Remove wet clothing and footwear as quickly as possible and replace with dry clothing and shoes.
  • At the first signs – redness, blueness, a whitish cast or pain in your skin – get into a warm place and protect the damaged skin.
Parents: Consider This
  • Carry extra clothing, warm blankets, some food, water and candles in the car when you transport kids in the winter. Adults may survive a long wait in a car; children may not.
  • Keep a close eye on children when they play outdoors in winter around water. Kids of any age can slip and fall. The risk of hypothermia and frostbite is too great to ignore. Even continued exposure to cold in a pair of wet shoes can produce serious frostbite.
Recovery from frostbite, depending on the severity, can be prolonged and painful. Damage can be permanent. So layer up, stay alert and don’t lose your earmuffs. It’s a matter of only 10 or 12 weeks now...
And by the way, International Falls — that “Frostbite” thing is affectionate. You know that Minnesotans respect your perseverance and your sense of humor! 

Be Good to Your Gas Meter, and It’ll Be Good to You

Posted January 5, 2015
There are certain gadgets, like certain people, you just can’t safely ignore. The gadgets are less trouble than the people in some cases — but we’re talking gas safety, and gas is explosive in the literal sense. Keeping your home safe in winter requires a sort of reciprocity agreement with your gas meter. You be good to it, and it will return the favor.
snow on a residential gas meter
Photo: Keep your home safe; clear away 
snow from your gas meter
In order to keep your meter from becoming a menace, you have to take care of it. It’s not that the thing is inherently dangerous or nasty — it just needs some maintenance, and the price for not providing it happens to be extremely high. Ignore the wrong person, and you’ll experience some (usually predictable) unpleasantries. Ignore your gas meter, and your entire house could blow up. No comparison, really.
Under normal circumstances, a gas meter functions so quietly, efficiently and continuously that you’ve probably never experienced a meter issue. It sits there next to the house and never complains. But it’s constantly under pressure, you know. It’s needier than it looks.
There is a vent on that meter that, in the event of a malfunction, allows pressurized gas to escape a regulator. If that vent becomes blocked — by snow or ice, for example — pressurized gas can get trapped, back up inside your pipes, find or create a weak spot, leak into your house and just wait for something to cause a spark.
Then you have an explosion. This doesn’t happen often, but face it — it would only take once to convince you it would have been better to clean the meter. In addition, the gas, itself, is deadly to humans and animals. (The “rotten egg” odor we associate with natural gas is added to it precisely so we can smell it, get out of the house, and call the gas company or 9-1-1.)
So take no chances. Keep a soft broom or a car brush handy, and brush the meter off each time it snows. In Minnesota, accumulated snow thaws and freezes several times before spring, so even if the snow looks fluffy and harmless, it has to go.
Your eaves and gutters must work properly, too. If they drip water onto your gas meter, it can become encased in ice — and that’s a bigger problem than snow. While your instinct may tell you to chip the stuff off, you really should call the energy company to have the meter cleaned. Chipping the ice isn’t safe.
Gas meters don’t like to be hit with anything, even softly. That’s why you brush them off and never, ever use a shovel or anything metal. Connections have to stay tight, and the integrity of those pipes can’t be compromised. Metal-on-metal can cause scratches, dents, potential leaks, and yes — sparks. So don’t chip the ice off with anything. Call your energy supplier (“contact” numbers are online) and they’ll send someone to clear up the ice problem and tell you how to avoid it in the future.
We’re in winter’s long stretch now. With the holidays behind us and cold days ahead, Minnesotans either find ways to enjoy the inevitable or hunker down and wait for spring. Either way, you’ll want that gas meter working properly, quietly, efficiently — and safely. Give it the kind attention it deserves, and it will give you the kind of service you need.