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Blog Archive: March 2015

It's Dry Out There -- Burn Carefully!

Posted March 30, 2015

Parts of the state have experienced snow over the last couple of weeks. Its arrival wasn’t exactly celebrated; most people just sighed and reluctantly attempted to locate their snow boots. But a few optimists (who may also be gardeners) did manage to mutter, “Well, we need the moisture…”

And the optimist-gardeners are right. The U.S. Drought Monitor puts over 88 percent of Minnesota in a current drought that’s predicted to stick around through June — and we know what that means. Our 10,000 lakes are surrounded by fire-vulnerable prairies and precious, combustible birch/pine forests. We don’t need a scientist to tell us that drought conditions increase the likelihood of wildfires.

We do, however, need to be reminded how to minimize that risk.
Photo: Grass fires can start quickly where drought conditions exist.

DNR rules will help. The agency declared restrictions on open burning of yard waste and brush in parts of northwestern, southern and central Minnesota beginning March 25. Once restrictions are in force, permits to burn brush and yard waste won’t be issued until green vegetation is growing, which could be four-to-six weeks. Many cities and counties have separate regulations on open burns, so residents will want to check with their local governments before burning.

DNR officials say campfires are legal, but you must still be careful, and there’s no better source of campfire-safety info than The Bear himself.  Smokey has a few tips on debris-burning, too.

All that said, there’s good reason for caution — but none for serious pessimism or panic.

According to University of Minnesota meteorologist Mark Seeley’s “Weather Talk” blog, this drought situation will effectively eliminate the issue of spring flooding on our rivers. That’s a relief for thousands of people — both victims and responders.

And historically, these things are not entirely predictable based on March models. Seeley says that among the 25 years with the driest Jan.-through-March period, half of them produced copious rain showers from April through June. Only about 30 percent of the time did the drought persist, so we’re likely to be okay.

But be careful anyway. The links above will tell you how. Wildfires are rarely started on purpose; barring a lightning strike, there is usually a very sorry, very embarrassed person whose careless behavior caused a horrifying event. Don’t let it be you.

The Most Alarming New Drug You've Never Heard Of 

Posted March 26, 2015
There’s a dangerous new high in town. It’s an extremely concentrated form of THC — the active agent in marijuana. The effects of its manufacture and use are beginning to show up in Minnesota, and they’re not pretty. This material known as marijuana wax (street names include butane hash oil, marijuana wax, honey oil, budder, dabs and 710, which spells “oil” upside-down) is not yet familiar to most people, but it’s causing havoc that ranges from fatal explosions and fires to life-threatening overdose reactions.

The Department of Public Safety held a news conference yesterday to warn Minnesotans about marijuana wax and encourage them to learn more about the deadly drug. The session included a 12-minute interview with a Duluth mother whose 16-year-old son overdosed. She shared the story of helping him through the choking, vomiting, hallucinations and feeling of suffocation he experienced, including their trip to the emergency room and her fear he would die before the drug wore off.
There’s nothing harmless about marijuana concentrates. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the level of THC in a
Photo of marijuana wax
​Photo: Marijuana wax is becoming more popular in Minnesota.

marijuana cigarette is about 14-to-18 percent. In the wax form, which can be smoked or ingested, it can run 30-to-90 percent — and to make matters worse, there are uninformed users who are not aware of the danger. At this time, many medical professionals are not adequately familiar with the substance to recognize its symptoms immediately, nor are the long-term effects of wax use yet known.
We do know that the high levels of THC in the wax create an intense physical and psychological reaction, and that the manufacturing process has allegedly claimed one life in Minnesota.  A November, 2014 explosion and house fire in St. Cloud killed 85-year-old Sally Douglas, and two young men have been criminally charged in that event. The production process involves using butane (the same gas used in cigarette and grill lighters) to release THC from the plant leaves, and the butane is removed by heating the concentrate. The butane becomes a gas at room temperature, and can be ignited by a small spark.
Events such as the one in St. Cloud are repeating themselves across the nation. A simple Internet search turns up news stories from east coast to west coast about third-degree burns, fatal smoke inhalation and property destruction related to manufacture of marijuana wax — and reports of overdoses by unsuspecting youth who were never told the truth about what this stuff is or how it might affect them.
The video of the DPS news conference is here. Combined with the Duluth woman’s description of her son’s experience, it should be sufficient to make a person want to learn more…and to pass on that knowledge through a Facebook page, Twitter, a community newsletter or any other available venue.
The stakes on this issue are enormous. DPS will do its part to keep the public aware and informed, but we all share responsibility to help reduce the misery this new drug threat is causing.

News Flash: You're Sharing the Road with Delusional Drivers

Posted March 23, 2015
Earlier this winter, following a less-than-stellar performance by Minnesota drivers in the first big, icy storm of the season, it was boldly announced in this space that Ice is Slippery.
The number of people who took that information to heart and applied it to their driving is anyone’s guess. Crash numbers during the next storm did not abate significantly, but someone may have filed it away for future reference.
Now, the Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) has released a new study on “high-risk” drivers. If you’re a Minnesota motorist, the results will not surprise you — but they do answer a question you frequently ask yourself on the road: “What is that person thinking?”
The study of 1,750 motorists identified “high risk” drivers based on certain behaviors and discovered that, while 1 in 6 drivers could be labeled high-risk, those same people’s perceptions of their driving behavior doesn’t match reality.
They think they’re good drivers. Half of them think they’re superior drivers.
image of teens that are texting while driving
Photo: Don't text while driving. Distracted driving
is a factor in one in four crashes.​
The OTS conducts studies like this for very good reason. Though it seems obvious that bad drivers think differently from good ones, knowing how they think helps OTS fight dangerous driving behavior. They use a combination of public education and traffic law enforcement to change driver attitudes and behaviors, saving lives and reducing crashes and injuries. In order to do that effectively, they need to get inside people’s heads.
The study is titled, 2014 High-Risk Driver Analysis, and it defines a high-risk driver as a person who consumed two-or-more drinks and drove at least once, or who engaged in two-or-more “risky behaviors” in the past 30 days. Risky behaviors include texting while driving, not wearing a seat belt, and driving more than 10 mph over the speed limit.
There may be disagreement as to what constitutes risky behavior. Some people believe that not wearing a seatbelt should not qualify as risky. Unbelted people are killed and injured in traffic crashes at a much higher rate than people who consistently wear seatbelts, however, so one’s definition of “risky” is the issue here.
“Driving 10 mph over the speed limit” is another point of contention in some circles. Speed limits, some drivers will say, are subjective. “They’re ignored. Adherence is dangerous where traffic is moving faster than posted speeds.”  The people in OTS, on the other hand, will tell you that speed is a factor in most highway deaths — and hence the “high-risk” label.
No one seems to disagree that driving distracted or driving drunk are high-risk behaviors — except for the people who engage in them. That is possibly the most fascinating and troubling thing in the report. The people who engage in the two most harmful driving behaviors, as measured by OTS over the years, are the ones who believe their choices to be justifiable. They think they can handle it. The data say they can’t.
Don’t despair, though. There are two pieces of good news here!
One is that you’re not crazy. The drivers you wonder about really are deluding themselves.
The other is that there’s value in information like this. It gives us cause to review our own driving behaviors and be sure we’re not contributing to the problem. It’s something to show our teen drivers and ask what they think. What do they see when they’re driving on their own? What kind of behavior worries them on the road? Do they know the crash statistics on texting-and-driving? They should.
In short, this study contains no big shocks, but it’s a good place to start eliminating your own delusions and making sure you’re not among that high-risk group.

DPS Video: Grandmother Credits Smoke Alarms, Granddaughter for Survival

Posted March 19
The Department of Public Safety loves happy endings.
There is an official DPS mission statement, carefully crafted and dutifully included in publications and web pages.  It talks about prevention, preparedness, response, education and enforcement — activities proudly carried out by department personnel to benefit the people of Minnesota. But in the end, it boils down to creating happy endings — or, in many cases, helping state residents and visitors create their own.
The State Fire Marshal Division (SFMD), that defender and promoter of fire safety everywhere, has spent decades reminding people to change their smoke alarm batteries regularly. “Working smoke alarms save lives,” they repeat. And repeat. And every year, the smoke alarms come through.
​Photo: A fire started in the porch of Karen’s home, spread into the house and set off smoke alarms.
After the fire is out, the noses are counted, and the story of escape-to-safety is told, local fire chiefs report the happy endings to the SFMD along with the rest of their fire data. And recently, the DPS Communications Office captured one of those stories in a short video that beautifully reinforces the importance of working smoke alarms.
In just over three minutes, Karen Hubert of Paynesville and her granddaughter, Morgan, describe the terrifying night last July when a fire started in the porch of Karen’s home, spread into the house and set off smoke alarms — alarms she didn’t hear as she slept behind her closed bedroom door. Megan was wakened by the alarms, however, and took action to save herself and her grandmother from the quickly thickening, life-threatening smoke. 
Hubert’s home was a total loss, for reasons made clear by dramatic video images of the burning house. Karen expresses her personal difficulty believing that something so devastating could happen to her family. But she also acknowledges that two lives were spared because the smoke alarms worked, and because 11-year-old Megan knew what to do when she heard them.
The State Fire Marshal Division is proud to share this video in hopes that others will also share it, too — on social media, in churches and schools, on city and county government sites, and in community organizations.
Last year, 25 people died in Minnesota residential fires where smoke alarms were missing, inoperable, or undetectable. Karen and Morgan’s happy ending will help viewers remember how important those smoke alarms can be.

Plan a Sober Ride and Enjoy St. Patrick's Day

Posted March 16, 2015
Tomorrow, March 17, is St. Patrick’s Day — as if you need to be told. Cardboard leprechauns grin at us from store windows, shamrocks are everywhere, and parties are planned around green beer. And the great thing is that anyone can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, even without knowing why St. Pat was significant. For one day, people become Irish wannabes, just going along for the party. It sounds like fun. So what’s the down side?
Getting home. If you don’t party where you live, there’s a point at which you’ll need to travel, and a good chance you won’t be sober. This scenario requires pre-planning. If you decide ahead of time who’s going to drink and who’s going to drive, and make sure they’re not the same person, you can relax and enjoy your evening.
And here’s why you should: The Office of Traffic Safety keeps track of crash statistics, and St. Patrick’s Day numbers are high. That single day, over the last five years, accounts for more than 2,000 crashes, 730 traffic-crash injuries and 12 deaths.
Police, sheriffs and troopers, working together in extra shifts, have arrested almost 1,200 people for DWI over the last five St. Patrick’s Days. These drivers apparently didn’t think ahead to find a sober ride — which is odd, because there’s a whole year to plan. There’s no excuse for driving impaired, and several good reasons not to.
Ask a law enforcement officer what it’s like to knock on a door and wait for it to open so you can tell a mom and dad that their son or daughter is gone — driving drunk and lost control. Or how it feels to tell a wife her husband is lying in a hospital, unresponsive — hit by a drunk driver. Our police say they never grow numb to the anguish experienced by people left behind, their lives shattered because somebody didn’t plan ahead.
There’s another, less terrifying but highly motivating reason. If you’re stopped by one of the extra patrol units that will be on our roads March 17, a DWI arrest can cost you your driver’s license, thousands of dollars and possible jail time. Repeat DWI offenders and first-time offenders arrested at 0.16 or above must use ignition interlock to regain driving privileges or face at least a year with no license.
Some communities make it easier to plan a sober ride. In the Twin Cities, Metro Transit offers free bus, light rail and Northstar rides on St. Patrick’s Day, starting at 6 p.m. In the Wright County Sober Cab program, taxis offer round-trips or one-way rides at bar time, and participating bars provide certificates for cab fare. Since the program began in 2010, more than 17,000 people have been safely delivered home because they planned ahead.
It’s much more fun to celebrate when you’re not worried about that trip at the end of the evening — so do what it takes to keep everyone safe. Plan a ride and party worry-free. And Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Sharing the Road Again

Posted March 12
You’ve seen the bumper stickers all over Minnesota: Start Seeing Motorcyclists!
Well, the owners of those be-stickered vehicles will be back on the roads shortly — in low profile, on two wheels. Their friends and loved ones will be there, too. There are 236,000 motorcycles registered in Minnesota. There are also 414,000 licensed motorcycle operators, and it’s a good bet that most of them have been gauging road conditions for weeks, watching for that first-ride-of-spring opportunity. For drivers, all this means it’s time for wide-open eyes and an extra glance in the mirror.
person in a motorcycle training course
​Photo: Start seeing motorcyclists; there are 236,000
motorcycles registered in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety reports the first motorcycle fatality in 2014 occurred on March 11 — a year ago yesterday. They say that was the second-earliest ever, with Feb. 28, 2002 taking the dubious honor of first place. The bottom line is: it’s dangerous out there for motorcyclists, especially in the spring, after they’ve been absent from northern roads for months. They’re hard to see, they move quickly, and they’re not expected to be there. It can be a fatal combination unless everyone involved is attuned to the situation; last year, there were 44 motorcycle fatalities in in Minnesota. Those are preliminary numbers, but that doesn’t matter in this context. One more, one less…every one is a tragedy, and they’re all preventable.
Thoughout the winter, the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center (MMSC) staff is busy preparing for spring. They create the public education campaigns and work with instructors and providers to get motorcycle safety classes up and running.
They also provide tips for riders and drivers to help them avert disaster and safely share the road:
  • The most common explanation police receive from an anguished motorist who’s just struck a biker is, “But…I didn’t see him!” Watch carefully for motorcycles and look twice before you turn or change lanes.
  • Riders in full, brightly-colored gear, including a DOT-approved helmet, are the most visible — and best-protected in a crash.
  • When you’re riding a high-horsepower, two-wheeled vehicle in traffic at highway speeds, there is no such thing as too much training. But there are good odds you’ll encounter a situation where training would help. Go to the MMSC site, look at the class list, and find out what more you can learn to stay alive.
  • Finally, common sense keeps everyone safe on the road. Drive sober. Ride sober. Maintain a legal speed and a safe following distance. Respect each other. And please, start seeing motorcyclists.
We’ve waited a long time for summer in Minnesota. Let’s help everyone live to enjoy it.

'Spring Forward' Safely

Posted March 9, 2015
Yesterday morning at 2 a.m., daylight saving time finally arrived. Midwest residents moved their clocks ahead before retiring Saturday night and bemoaned the loss of an hour of sleep. Maybe they even thought about to going to work in the dark Monday morning.
But negatives aside, it feels like a happy milestone. We recognize it as a rite of spring.
Most people also recognize the phrase, “Change your clocks; change your batteries.”  They know it refers to the batteries in their smoke alarms, and many of them follow that advice every spring because they know it could save their lives. Like wearing a seatbelt, it’s one of those common-sense actions that make common-sense people rest easier.
Photo: Smoke alarms alarms save lives;
be sure the batteries are fresh.
There are other practical things to do as we “spring forward” to make sure we’re ready for a new weather pattern. It would be nice to have a breather between sub-zero temperatures and destructive spring storms — but if you need one, breathe quickly. Things change fast in Minnesota, and spring brings its own safety demands.
On that note, here are a few wise precautions to take as we head into springtime: 
1. Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms save lives. Make sure your home is equipped with both, and be sure the batteries are fresh.
2. Put fresh batteries in the flashlights while you’re at it; it’s not uncommon to lose power during a storm. Place the flashlights where you can find them in the dark.
3. Sign up for Wireless Emergency Alerts to stay informed on real-time events. An alternative is a weather app like StormWatch+ for your phone.
4. Don’t wait until severe weather season is upon us. Make an emergency plan with your family and practice it before the sirens go off. 
5. Motorcycle season is just around the corner. If you’re a rider, find a riding class and spruce up your skills. You can register online at the Motorcycle Safety Center.
6. Make up for that hour of lost sleep. Drowsy driving is a factor in 20 percent of fatal crashes.
7. Prepare your car for spring and summer trips. The Minnesota State Patrol recommends checking tires and fluids, and making sure seat belts and car seats are in proper working order.
8. Talk with your teen driver about seat belt use, distracted driving and speed limits. There are lots of good conversation starters on the DPS website under “Traffic Safety.”
9. Make sure your home emergency kit is stocked and ready to go for the summer season. With your kit stored away, you’ll be ready to head for the basement if the weather gets ugly. Or the attic. Or the next county. Who knows?
Being ready for anything feels great. You’ve just lost one hour of time you won’t get back until fall — but that’s nothing compared to what you can lose if you’re not taking care of common-sense details. Give it a shot. You might sleep better.

Are You Ready to Use 911?

Chances Are You’ll Be Calling from a Cell Phone

Posted March 5, 2015
Nearly three million 911 calls were made in Minnesota last year, according to the DPS Emergency Communications Network (ECN) Division — averaging just over 8,000 calls a day. Eighty percent of those calls for help were made from wireless phones, which continue to grow in popularity. (CTIA, an international trade association representing the wireless industry, reports that worldwide, smartphones sold at the rate of 41 phones per second in 2014.)
But the rising use of wireless devices is creating challenges for 911 call centers as they wait for wireless carriers to provide improved location information.
Jackie Mines, ECN director, says the 911 call takers in Minnesota do a great job, given the current information provided by wireless carriers to determine where a wireless call is coming from. All Minnesota 911 call centers have the technology to receive detailed information on a caller’s location — as long as the carriers are able to provide it. But meanwhile, this is the situation:
911 call center
Photo: Most calls that come into Minnesota 911
call centers are from mobile phones.
When a 911 call is placed on a traditional land line, the 911 call taker can instantly see the address connected to that phone — including the floor number or the apartment or condo number in a multi-unit building. You may be asked to confirm the information, but on the 911 call taker can see it on their computer screen.
That’s not the case with cell phones.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued rules in 1996 that require wireless carriers to automatically transmit location information to 911 call centers; however, unlike with landline calls, the location displayed on the computer screen is less precise and was developed at a time when cellular calls were being placed primarily from outdoors - callers used cell phones from cars, parks, sidewalk cafes.
Now, many people have replaced land lines with cell phones, and most 911 calls are being from those mobile phones.
The FCC recently adopted an order requiring cell phone carriers to improve location information. Mines and her team at DPS support this order because it will improve the accuracy of the location information that is sent to 911 call centers, improving emergency responses.
Meanwhile, if you need to call 911 from your cell phone, ECN recommends you keep this in mind:
  • Be aware of your surroundings.  Provide very precise information on your location, noting unusual landmarks or buildings that can assist the 911 call taker if you do not know your address. 
  • The 911 call centers have various tools to refine your location; stay on the line and try to be patient if they have to search for you.
  • Provide mile markers or exit numbers, a street intersection, a house number or a business address. They’ll have a better chance of finding you.
  • Callers using VoIP phones should understand how to change the location information for 911 if you move locations.

Learn to Get Out of a Burning House;

Practice Escape Plan with Kids

Posted March 2, 2015
When you hear a story on the news about someone dying in a house fire, do you ever ask yourself, “Why?” Survival doesn’t seem all that complicated.
firefighter putting out a blaze at a home
  Photo: Plan for how to escape a fire and practice it.​
The house is on fire. The smoke alarms go off.  If you’re asleep, the alarm wakes you. If you’re not, you stop what you’re doing and get out of the house. If you have children, you calmly call to them, explain the problem, and they respond quickly and obediently, collaring the dog on their way out. (They also grab their boots and coats, which are near the front door, because it’s very cold outside.) Everyone meets in the front yard, and the fire department and the insurance company take it from there. Simple.
Except that’s not how it works.
Nine people, including two children, have died in house fires this year. There were five similar deaths by this time in 2014 — and these numbers aren’t just statistics. People lost their lives, and one is too many.
Historically, Minnesota residential fires peak in the winter, and there’s plenty of winter left to justify reviewing the way that fire scenario is more likely to go.
First of all, the smoke alarm won’t go off if its batteries are dead or missing. There’s a place on a fire department report where they can write “Smoke alarm disabled.” That’s how common it is to find the smoke alarm batteries in a plastic truck at the bottom of a toy box — where they’re definitely not going to save your life.
But assume the alarm works, and you wake up or remove your attention from your project, book or TV show. You jump up and smell the smoke. You run through the house looking for the source. It’s rolling (50 percent of the time, statistically) out of the kitchen and right up the steps to the kids’ playroom. You become extremely upset and start up the stairs, screaming. The children can’t understand you…because you’re screaming. One of them is wearing headphones. They don’t move. The smoke gets thicker. You find the kids, start back downstairs, and they begin to cry and shriek. They’re frightened and their eyes hurt. They want to go get the dog. They can’t breathe. The front door is only feet away, but by now, you can’t see it. The dog’s location at this point is anyone’s guess. It’s 10 degrees outside and the kids are in socks. In modern construction, the size of a fire will approximately double in one minute, so by now you have a very serious problem in the kitchen, and this situation is going nowhere but downhill...
Enter: Bruce West, Minnesota State Fire Marshal. “Escape options, planning and practice will keep people alive in a building fire. Children can be taught to get out and stay out if parents plan and practice with them often.”
According to the American Red Cross, 69 percent of parents believe their children would know what to do and how to escape a fire with little help. However, 82 percent of families have not practiced a home fire drill. Since children, apparently, are not born with knowledge of things like “two ways out,” “crawl low, under the smoke,” and “meet the family across the street,” many parents may be making a dangerous assumption about how their children would behave in a house fire.
The State Fire Marshal Division offers these tips. They’ll help you avoid the unpleasant scenario described above.
Fire safety and escape planning
  • Install smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.
    • Test alarms monthly and replace the batteries twice a year.
    • Alarms should be replaced based on manufacturer recommendations.
  • Draw a diagram of your home. Mark windows and doors and plan two ways out of each room.
  • Teach your kids to crawl low if they see smoke. 
  • Plan an outside meeting place — away from the house — for everyone in your home.
  • Practice your escape plan twice a year with every family member. Include pets. 
  • Make sure kids know the sound of a smoke alarm and what to do when it goes off.
  • Make sure kids understand they’re not to go back into the house once they’re out. Not ever. For any reason. 
  • If you’re staying away from home, know how to escape there, too.
  • Treat every smoke alarm activation as an emergency. Get out and stay out.