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Blog Archive: October 2015

Plan Ahead to Keep Your Monsters Safe on Halloween

Posted October 19, 2015
Some people love Halloween for the fantasy. They love to dress up like princesses and superheroes, and pretend to have magic powers for one night. Others like the ghouls and the ghosts and the gore. But pretty much everyone agrees that free treats are a good idea, no matter what their costume preference is.
​Photo: Parents’ can keep their kids safe on Halloween
by following our helpful safety tips.
 And here’s another thing that’s universal: without some safety precautions, Halloween can be horrifying in the literal sense. Young children dressed in masks they can hardly see out of are traipsing through dark neighborhoods decorated with burning candles, wearing costumes that drag on the ground, in a state of excitement that diminishes their attention spans. It’s easy to see this scenario going downhill fast.
Just a few moments spent planning can set parents’ minds at ease and keep kids from making a tragic mistake. Put this list of pointers to work, and discuss some of the tips with your foraging little monsters. It could save you from experiencing a real horror on Halloween.
Before the big night:
  • Plan to use makeup instead of masks; it’s more comfortable and it won’t obstruct vision.
  • Make sure costumes are flame-retardant. People still use candles and flames in decorations. You can’t make your neighbors more careful, but you can protect your kids.
  • Keep costumes short and snug. Princesses and ghosts can trip, fall, spill their candy and wreck their evenings.
  • Attach reflective strips to costumes and bags; have kids carry glow sticks or flashlights so they can be seen.
  • Avoid costumes that include fake weapons, lest they be used as — well, weapons.
On Halloween:
  • Plan on following your younger children through the neighborhood; watch from a reasonable distance as they collect their goodies. Be there to make sure they stay in well-lit areas and cross streets when it’s safe. Older kids should travel in groups.
  • Keep your own house well lighted, inside and out, if you’re receiving trick-or-treaters.
  • Clear your yard and sidewalk of obstacles or decorations that may be hard to see, so no one goes bump in the night.
  • Remind your children not to enter strange houses or cars.
  • Don’t send kids out hungry, and remind them not to eat treats until they get home.
  • Treats need scrutiny at home before anyone eats them. Be wary of anything that’s not in its original, factory wrapper, or homemade treats from a source you don’t know personally.
There are online sources for Halloween safety advice. McGruff the Crime Dog has a quiz and coloring page, and sorts tips by children’s age groups.
Halloween Magazine sponsors an online Halloween safety game that’s fun even for adults—easily entertained adults, anyway. (It’s a large file that opens slowly, but it’s worth waiting.)
So look around online and find ways to get your kids interested in safety before you send them out to trick-or-treat. Then, instead of spending your evening worrying about them, you can spend it appreciating the fact that there will be something other than horror movies on TV next week!

Winter Checklist: (1) Prepare for Heating (2) Find Fuzzy Slippers

Posted October 15, 2015
You may not have turned on the furnace yet, but you’ll soon feel the chill, and now’s the time to prepare for that happy day. Unfortunately, there’s a typical reaction to the suggestion that people should prepare for what we’ll euphemistically call “heating season.”
“Prepare? Prepare what? All I do is walk over to that thing on the wall, change ‘cool’ to ‘heat,’ and the house warms up. No problem!”
But that’s not true. It was a problem for hundreds of families last year. About 10 percent of residential fires are related to heating, and some of them take place in homes similar to yours. So consider this list and find out what to do before the first cold snap — because you know the old adage: “Better safe than standing on the frozen sidewalk in your fuzzy slippers, watching your house burn down.”

Gas Furnaces and Water Heaters

  • Consider having your furnace checked and maintained by a professional every year. If not that often, then do it every other year. Call the pros for the same reasons you maintain your car — fuel efficiency, safety and longevity.
  • A gas appliance needs to breathe; don’t stack things up near it.
  • Keep the floor vacuumed to reduce dust, and store boxes at a distance or in another room.
  • No kitty litter near the furnace; ammonia fumes can corrode the heat exchanger. No paint, gasoline, paint thinners or other fume-makers, either.
  • Keep the laundry at a distance, too. Fabrics create dust and lint, and lint is incredibly combustible.
  • Leave the furnace room door open to allow air exchange. An air-starved gas appliance can draw air down from the top rather than in from its vents, creating a dangerous situation.
Forced-air furnaces typically have a filter that cleans the air before heating it. Inspect your filter monthly and clean or replace it as necessary. A clean filter improves efficiency, which can reduce your energy bills.

Wood Stoves and Fireplaces

Image of wood burning in a wood stove
Photo: Keep anything that can burn or be burned
at least three feet from a wood stove​.
Burning wood releases creosote, tars and resin. They’re all heavy, gooey and flammable, and they stick to the inside of your chimney. You can’t see them, but they’re there, building up every time you use the stove or the fireplace. Creosote ignites at 451 degrees Fahrenheit — just like paper. Chimney fires burn into walls and roofs, and houses are destroyed.
Now…let’s talk fireplace and wood stove safety.
  • First, call a chimney inspector every fall. It’s so much less expensive to have a professional clean out the creosote and the squirrel nests, and check the integrity of the liner, brick and mortar than it is to replace everything you own.
  • Install a spark shield or a wire basket on top of your chimney.
  • Make sure the flue is open before you light the fire, and remember — a clear, hot fire burns cleanly. Smoldering wood is burning inefficiently and creating creosote like crazy.
  • Keep anything that can burn or be burned — including children and pets — at least three feet from the fireplace and the stove. This includes walls, draperies, furniture, wet clothing — everything.
  • Always use a screen or glass doors, and close the wood stove door. Be sure there’s a hearth — something that will not ignite — in front of that opening to protect from escaping sparks.
  • Never, ever use an accelerant in a fireplace or a wood stove. They can become explosively dangerous, injuring you too badly to escape.
  • Make sure that fire is out before you go to bed. Combustion is never 100 percent efficient — it all creates carbon monoxide. Let the fire die.
  • For the determinedly fire-safe: Ask your fire department or stove accessory store about chimney fire extinguishers; keep one handy for every fireplace or stove. A standard ABC extinguisher should also be on hand.

Portable Space Heaters

These things are misused so commonly they cause disasters every winter. Please follow these rules when you use a space heater. It could save your life.
  • NUMBER ONE rule: Space heaters are not designed to heat large spaces. They’re not efficient, they overheat and they can start fires if they’re misused. Turn the heater on when you’re there, off when you’re gone, and never use one to heat your home.
  • Give it space. Don’t put it next to the couch, the crib, a table leg or anything else that can burn. Create a three-foot empty space around it.
  • Plug electric heaters directly into a wall outlet. Extension cords increase the chance of overheating and shock injuries. If you must use an extension cord, get one that’s rated for use with a heater. If you’re not sure, ask someone in the electrical department where extension cords are sold. They can explain it.
  • Keep your heater clean. Dust and lint are terribly combustible.
  • Keep it away from water. Don’t touch it with wet hands. Don’t put wet things near it.
  • If it’s defective, don’t use it. If it makes funny noises or malfunctions in any way, unplug it and replace it.
Some of these are action items; some of them are just good habits. All of them are going to keep you safe and warm and mentally at peace this winter — inside your home, anyway.
Outside… well, that’s what Winter Hazard Awareness Week is for. Watch this space in early November.

What’s Worse than a Sub-Zero Night in Minnesota?

Posted October 12, 2015
Sitting on the side of the road in your disabled vehicle on a sub-zero night in Minnesota—that’s what. Watching the descent of that deep-freeze stillness from inside the house may impress you or depress you, depending on your viewpoint; getting stuck in it is dangerous.
State Patrol Troopers spend a lot of time helping motorists who get stranded when their vehicles break down in the winter. That’s part of their job, and they do it gladly. But they also see how the drivers and passengers suffer, so they hope you’ll use this checklist to help get yourself home warm and safe this winter:
Photo: Put an emergency kit in the car
in case you get stranded.
Schedule a tune up:
  • Check the battery annually—cold temperatures are hard on batteries.
  • Flush the cooling system and put new antifreeze in it every couple of years. Cars can overheat in cold temperatures, damaging the engine and causing it to fail.
  • Make sure heaters, defrosters and wipers work properly. Consider winter wiper blades and use cold-weather washer fluid. You may go through a half-gallon of washer fluid on a day with poor road conditions, just trying to keep your windshield clear of winter slush.
  • Check tire tread depth (3/32” is the minimum required by state law) and tire pressure. Cold air deflates tires, increasing the risk of a having a flat if you hit a rut in the roadway and break the bead. Tire pressure should really be checked weekly in the winter. Tire pressure will drop about 1 pound of pressure per 10 degrees, so plan a few minutes on your way to work or home to stop and fill tires at a gas station.
  • Have the brakes checked and schedule service if it’s recommended. Maintaining control on an icy road is challenging in itself; that’s not a place you want to find out your brakes are worn. 
General Maintenance:
  • Be diligent about changing the oil and filter. Have your mechanic check the air, fuel and transmission filters while you’re having routine maintenance done.
  • Consider adding a block heater to your engine. That’s a small, electric engine heater that plugs into your home’s regular 120-volt outlet overnight. With a good battery and a heater, you’ll be confident your car will start every sub-zero morning and warm up faster as you drive.
  • Do you know where your spare tire is? Any idea what kind of shape it’s in? Learn where it’s located, how to access it, and check the air pressure regularly. It’s no good to you if it’s flat. Also, consider purchasing a small hydraulic jack. They are relatively inexpensive, and safer and easier than the scissors-jack that comes with most new vehicles.
  • Snow tires are one of the best ways to increase your car’s performance in the snow. Snow tires have a different tread pattern and are slightly soft, so they grip the road more tightly and increase traction. That means better handling when you’re braking, starting and turning. Snow tires can be taken off and stored after winter, so you can get several years of use out of your investment. (Some tire service providers will store your other tires when you are not using them—make sure to ask.)
Road Safety Tips:
  • Keep your gas tank close to full:  If you’re stranded, your only heat source will be your engine. The more gas you have, the longer you’ll stay comfortable while you wait for help.
  • Put an emergency kit in the car. Ice scraper, snow brush, jumper cables, small shovel, blanket, extra set of clothing, candles and matches, bottled water, and dry snacks. If you never need it, wonderful. If you do, you’ll feel terribly clever.
  • Be aware that when the roads are in bad shape, tow service providers will be overwhelmed — even the ones you have insurance for. You may need to resolve the situation yourself or be prepared to wait several hours for service to arrive.
The Minnesota State Patrol wants you to be warm and safe all winter — in your car and everywhere else. Take care of business in October, and you may not need their help in January.

What’s in That Drink? Know Your ABVs*

Posted October 8, 2015
If you Google “What’s in my drink?” a dozen or more sites will pop up — all of them concerned with the nutritional content of various liquids. There are lessons on how to read nutrition labels and concerns expressed about getting too much of this or not enough of that in the processed, bottled, canned, powdered, pre-mixed, fortified, concentrated, carbonated drinks we enjoy.
Comparatively, there’s very little information about alcohol. Judging from our internet search habits, if someone hands us a can that looks unfamiliar, we’re likely to ask, “What’s in it?”  But if it’s an alcoholic beverage with a label we understand (wine, beer, vodka) we’re less inclined to wonder — which is strange, because alcohol can kill people.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stats say that on average, six people die of alcohol poisoning every day in the U.S.  About three-quarters of them are 35-64 years old, and three-quarters are men. And they’re not predominantly alcohol-addicted people.

​Photo: On average, six people die of alcohol poisoning
every day in the United States.
The CDC also furnishes a map that shows Minnesota as one of the top states for alcohol-poisoning deaths per-million-people. (Our neighbors to the east, famed for their beer consumption, show up in the middle of the bottom group. You just can’t rely on stereotypes.) Alaska, by the way, is number one. Alabama is number 50.
The point here is that a person should know what’s in an alcoholic beverage before consuming it. You’d think that young, inexperienced drinkers should be even more careful, but again – stereotypes can mislead. There is cause for concern when young people begin using alcohol, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has a page on college drinking that’s packed with good info. But statistics say older people are just as vulnerable to alcohol O.D. as anyone.
There are national standards to help you understand the amount of alcohol you’re getting. A “Standard” drink in the U.S. is one of the following:
  • 12 ounces of beer at 5% alcohol
  • Five ounces of wine at 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (whiskey, gin, rum, etc.) at 40% alcohol
Keep that in mind as you make your drink selections — and to spark a great bar conversation, pull this up on your phone: the NIAA Cocktail Content Calculator. Take a look and find out how much you’re really drinking, based on the cocktail recipe.
Then consider this:
  • The average craft beer = 1.8 regular beers
  • 5 ounces of wine = 1 regular beer
  • Moscow Mule = 1.3 regular beers
  • Screw Driver = 1.3 regular beers
  • Mojito = 1.3 regular beers
  • Gin & Tonic = 1.6 regular drinks
  • Martini = 1.2 – 1.4 regular drinks
  • Margarita = 1.7 regular drinks
Considering the number of tragic stories we hear about people who O.D. on alcohol or make a fatal decision to drive when they’re not capable, these numbers are worth a discussion around the dinner table, or in the dorm room — or even at the bar. And it makes sense to be as concerned about what’s in that craft brew as what’s in the vitamin water you’re drinking.
Either one could cause a problem, possibly — but one of them could cause a much bigger problem — and much sooner. So know what you’re drinking. Drink responsibly. And plan ahead for a sober ride home.
*Alcohol by Volume: a standard measure of how much alcohol (ethanol) is contained in a given volume of alcoholic beverage. Expressed as a percentage, this information appears on every commercially traded alcoholic beverage label.

Time to Learn the Basics: Fire Prevention Week is October 4-10

Posted October 5, 2015
Fire Prevention Week happens every year. The National Fire Protection Association sponsors the event and fire departments nationwide get onboard to support it. Cities plan fire department open houses and invite the public in to explore the station, admire the trucks and talk with firefighters about how much easier it is to prevent a fire than it is to extinguish one.
State Fire Marshals in every state, whose missions include fire prevention by virtue of their code responsibilities, encourage their constituents to learn the basics of fire safety and practice them every day. In states like Minnesota, fire-and-life safety educators develop educational materials for teachers, parents and the public and put them online. Minnesota’s downloadable, printable materials appear online in several languages. They cover everything from kitchen fire safety (that’s where most home fires start) to Christmas trees (relatively rare, but disastrous fires) and fire escape planning, so you’re sure to learn something valuable.
In Minnesota, the DPS State Fire Marshal Division makes fire safety fun.  There are online games that kids love — and adults will learn from. (You don’t have to admit it.) And there are public education theme kits for use by fire departments, schools, parents, club leaders or anyone else who wants to make a big difference during Fire Prevention Week.
All year, the State Fire Marshal Division collects data from fire departments all over the state. They learn about every house fire, building fire, car fire, wildland fire and arson fire. They crunch all the numbers and publish a report called Fire in Minnesota (the 2014 version will be online soon). They know where, and in most cases, why those fires start — and they use that knowledge, and share it with the world, so fire prevention education can focus on the biggest problems.
Right now those problems are (1) kitchen fires caused by unattended cooking and items left too close to the hot stovetop, and (2) heating fires caused by careless fireplace use and unattended space heaters.
We mentioned earlier that experts in the field of fire protection urge the public to learn the fire prevention basics. Everything you need to know, including information on family fire drills and teaching children how to react to the smoke alarm, is on that State Fire Marshal website. So during Fire Prevention Week, devote an evening to the safety of your home, your family and your possessions.
And please consider this: It CAN happen to you. A home fire is not something you expect, and when it happens, people call it an accident. But it’s usually not. It’s usually the direct result of an unwise choice made by someone who didn’t know any better — and it happens every day. During Fire Prevention Week, learn how to keep it from happening.

Bar Sweeps Check up on Barkeeps

AGE Agents Make a Fall Tour of campus-Area Drinking Establishments

Posted Oct. 1, 2015
“Barkeep” used to be a common expression.  It was a short form of barkeeper, and referred to the owner of an establishment that served

​Photo: DPS Alcohol and Gambling agents will be conducting “sweeps” of campus bars throughout the fall.
 alcohol, or the person behind the bar who kept the customers happy. Nowadays, it’s the name of a software app that keeps track of liquor inventory and a quality-code review system for engineers who want to “keep the bar high.”
But here’s the important thing: It rhymes with “sweep.” And if you’re a barkeep, that might help you remember that DPS Alcohol and Gambling agents will be conducting “sweeps” of college campus bars throughout the fall. They’re not going to announce their arrival in advance, and their choice of businesses to visit will be random. They’ll be reminding owners and managers about the importance of compliance with Minnesota alcohol laws and checking for illegal gambling activity. Agents will check liquor licenses, look for illegal football boards and pull-tabs, and hand out printed materials about overserving and underage drinking.
When this year’s bar sweep is completed, the division will make public a review of their findings.
The bar/restaurant business is hectic and heavily regulated, and if gambling is involved it’s even more complex. There’s nothing easy about being an owner/operator in the liquor-service industry. But the guidelines can be simplified so that barkeeps can check them off now and then, refreshing their memories and keeping operations up to snuff. If you’re in the business, share these with staff — and watch for a check-up visit this fall.
Establishment Responsibilities
• Nearly one in five traffic fatalities among kids 16-to-20-years old are alcohol related. ID every customer ordering alcohol — every time.
• Criminal and civil lawsuits can be filed against establishments and servers for both over-service and underage service.
• It is illegal for a licensed retailer to provide alcohol to a minor. If the minor suffers great bodily harm or death as a result of intoxication, the provider can be charged with a felony.
Gambling Responsibilities
• Football boards for pay are considered illegal gambling. They can cause an establishment to lose its license to operate charitable gambling.
• Outside of licensed, charitable organizations, gambling that consists of consideration, chance and prizes is illegal. (Removing one of those three elements would make the activity legal.)