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Blog Archive: October 2014

Driver Consideration Prevents Fender Benders

(Knowing the Rules Helps, Too)

Posted October 30, 2014
If you regularly drive in Minnesota, you’re familiar with that high-sign in the mirror — the one you get when you let a desperate lane-changer pull into traffic ahead of you. Or the grateful wave you might receive when you stop at a yellow light so someone can finish a turn and clear the intersection. You come to expect it after a while. If it doesn’t happen, you may assume the other driver hasn’t been here long enough to know how we do things.
Freeway traffic on I-494 in Minnesota
Photo:  Drivers exiting from and merging onto Interstate 494.
Minnesotans know, for instance, that blinkers are not decorative; they’re used to let other drivers make safe decisions based on where we’re going next. And they have better sense than to stop in a cross-walk and force pedestrians to walk around vehicles in the snow — or the wind, or whatever seasonal plague they’re suffering at the moment.
Those behaviors are based on an understanding that consideration on the road keeps everyone safer. “What goes around comes around,” we tell ourselves, and so we expect the next guy to show a little kindness, too.
But sometimes they don’t. It might be lack of consideration — but it might not. Some people just don’t know the rules.
Take the example of a 4-way stop. Typically at a 4-way stop, a driver is dealing with vehicles coming from three other directions — and there are three basic rules governing right-of-way.
1. Timing is everything: the first vehicle to come to a complete stop at the intersection has the right-of-way.
2. If two vehicles arrive at the same time facing each other, a left-turning vehicle yields to the oncoming vehicle.
3. If two vehicles arrive at the same time, at 90-degree angles to each other, the vehicle on the right has the right-of way.
Obviously it does no good to challenge other drivers. Being right won’t protect you from a crash. But if everyone follows the rules at a busy 4-way stop, the action should proceed clockwise, with everyone looking out for their own safety. (Sometimes, even people who don’t know the rules will figure it out!)
Another set of problems arise when drivers don’t know how to make a legal turn into a street with two lanes moving the same direction. Always turn into the lane closest to you. If you want to be in the other lane, turn into the closest lane, use your blinker, and make a safe lane-change. Drivers turning into the lane farthest from you shouldn’t have to wonder if you’re going to hit them. If everyone turns into the closest lane, things remain safe and predictable. (See Minnesota Driver’s Manual, Page 24)
Finally, there’s the Zipper Merge. Nowadays, you don’t start merging the first time you see a “lane closed” sign. You stay in your lane until you see the “Begin Merge” sign. It’s a new concept for people who learned to drive a long time ago — but it works beautifully if everybody knows what’s going on. If you know that those people passing you in the other lane are not just trying to beat you to the front of the line, it feels a lot better. You just let them merge at the funny-looking zipper sign, and everyone gets home safely.
And you might even get the grateful wave.

Don’t Let “Boo” Turn into Boo-Hoo

Plan Ahead for Safe Kids on Halloween

Posted October 27, 2014
Here’s a typical American Halloween scenario (using a generic “you” to refer to parents who aren’t as cautious as you probably are.)
You’re dressing your children up so no one can recognize them and sending them into the dark with other kids to collect candy from (in some cases) complete strangers.
Kids running in Halloween costumes
Photo: Two children trick-or-treating in
questionably safe costumes.
The kids might not see as well as they should in that spooky mask, so the decorations, curbs, steps and landscaping they’re walking through might escape their field of vision. They’re hyped up about costumes and candy, so if they cross a street, they may fail to see a vehicle or two, as well. And as a bonus, they eat the candy while they travel, resulting in a sugar rush that makes their attention span even shorter and increases the likelihood of careless behavior.
Not the evening you had planned.
But that said, you don’t have to be boring to be safe. You just need to:
  • Try using makeup instead of masks; it’s more comfortable and doesn’t obstruct vision.
  • Make sure costumes are flame-retardant. People still use candles and flames in decorations. You can’t make them more careful, but you can protect your kids.
  • Keep costumes short and snug. The princess skirt isn’t worth a painful trip to the pavement.
  • 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.
  • 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 your 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 several good, 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. (Okay, for easily entertained adults.)
So look around and find some ways to get your kids interested in safety before you send them out to trick-or-treat.
Then, with your parental responsibilities fulfilled, you can begin planning where you’re going to keep your share of the goodies stashed where they won’t find it.

State Agencies Putting in Place Plans to Handle Ebola in Minnesota

Meanwhile, Experts Say, Get a Flu Shot — that’s the More Realistic Threat

Posted October 23, 2014
This morning, more than 100 representatives from about 20 state agencies, including DPS and its Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM), gathered to participate in a two-hour “tabletop exercise” on the topic of Ebola. There are no cases of Ebola in Minnesota; no cases have existed and none are expected. But in the words of Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman today, “The core responsibility of government is public safety. We do that best when we plan and practice — and we plan and practice best together.”
She went on to explain that Gov. Dayton has stressed the importance of reliable information to deal with public anxiety, and this morning’s exercise was designed to bring people together to confirm agency roles and responsibilities if a case of Ebola is found in Minnesota.
Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Ed Ehlinger presented the case for a calm, measured approach by state officials, health professionals and the public.
“Being frightened by Ebola is normal. We have no experience with it. Other risks, like car crashes and flu viruses are greater, but we understand them. We’ll get there with Ebola, but it takes time. Remember that Nigeria was declared-Ebola free this week. A country with resources can do this, and if a case comes to Minnesota, we will respond effectively because we’ve set up the systems and communication networks we need.”
Sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and DPS, the exercise was designed around a realistic (but not real) scenario: A 42-year-old school teacher spends two weeks in Liberia to check on his family. He is screened at airports in Liberia and the U.S. on the way home to his wife and two children. After three days he is admitted to a Twin Cities hospital with low-grade fever, muscle aches and weakness. Testing confirms the illness to be Ebola.
The point of the exercise was to allow agencies to discuss how the state’s well-practiced incident response process would apply to a case of Ebola. Agencies communicate their reactions to this situation, present concerns, list priorities and share their action plans. The interagency communication at a tabletop event is essential for a cohesive response in any emergency, from weather events to man-made disasters and public health threats.
MDH would lead the state in response to the presence of Ebola here. Their Director of Infectious Disease Control, Kris Ehresmann, provided current information from her agency. She included the facts that Ebola is not a significant threat in the U.S. right now; the MDH includes more than 25 Ebola-trained staff members; MDH is providing an information line for  medical clinics and the public; they’re also doing educational outreach to West African community members in Minnesota.
group of state staff at ebola table top exercise
Photo: Attendees at the Ebola table top exercise.
MDH representatives shared the procedures they would follow in the described scenario. There are federal regulations and state policies to follow, and their staff is well informed and prepared for the situation. Communication directors from state agencies spoke about coordinating information for each other and the public. Other discussions were about news conferences after a definitive Ebola diagnosis and the point at which the State Emergency Operation Center (SEOC) would be activated. The SEOC is the gathering place where agency representatives hear the same information at the same time, share their responses and keep the public informed.
The discussion went on to cover everything from public transit to schools, as people whose job it is to plan ahead were encouraged to share concerns and solutions with each other.
This is the way Minnesota agencies work when there is an emergency or disaster. Every year, agency reps gather in the SEOC to plan a response to an event at a nuclear power-plant. When the I-35W Bridge fell, the principal players from your state agencies knew where to go and what to do. They’ve been practicing for years.
Today’s tabletop exercise was part of the continuing effort to prepare Minnesota as we look at the possible threat of Ebola. Meanwhile, HSEM Director Kris Eide summed up the current situation for this morning’s gathering:
“There is a big Ebola problem in West Arica. There is a big fear problem in the U.S.  We should not listen to hysteria; we should look at facts. Here is a fact: unlike Ebola, influenza is easily transmitted. So get a flu shot. Today we’re sharing information to help us decide how to handle this next possible challenge.”

Flashing Lights. Warning.

STOP Reading Now…

Posted October 20, 2014
…unless you are a parent, a teacher, a licensed driver of any kind, a city dweller, a country dweller or a human who agrees that waiting for a school bus shouldn’t be a life-or-death situation.
This is National School Bus Safety Week. If you fall into even one category, please read on.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that U.S. student fatalities in school-transportation crashes average 18 per year. That includes students who died as passengers and those killed when they were pedestrians getting on or off the bus. Granted, 18 is not a large number. But one is an overwhelming number if the child is yours — or if you’re the responsible driver.
Kids getting on the school bus
Photo: Kids getting on the school bus.
Drivers who  illegally pass school busses put students in danger, and it’s not a problem that only happens somewhere else. This dash-cam video was made this year, on Sept. 10 in St. Louis County. The truck driver in this instance was charged with a gross misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of one year incarceration and/or a $3,000 fine. The case is pending.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, and there are numbers to prove it.  In 2014, the (take a deep breath here) National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services published a survey of illegal school-bus passes.  In just 29 states, including Minnesota, they collected reports of almost 76,000 illegal passes.
That’s 76,000 drivers who didn’t know, or simply did not care, that the giant, bright-yellow vehicle with the “STOP” sign sticking out of the side was loading or unloading young children who might not be aware of the driver’s presence.
In Minnesota, there were 402 instances reported from just one day.  Numbers from a few other states are even more startling. But 402 is enough to make you think, instead of “I know I’m supposed to stop, but the kids never come around this way and I’m in a hurry,” something more like, “One child is all it takes, and today could be the day.”
If you fall into the “parent” group, the SafeKids.Org people have some good advice on keeping your students safe around the school bus. Here’s the short version. Find more on their site.
  • Walk your kids to the bus stop and wait until it arrives. Tell kids to stand three giant steps back from the curb as the bus approaches and board the bus one at a time.
  • A child who needs to cross the street after getting off the bus should make eye contact with the bus driver and cross when the driver indicates it’s safe.
  • Be careful of straps or drawstrings that could get caught in the bus door. Children should make sure the bus driver is able to see them before they pick up anything they’ve dropped.
There is more to know about School Bus Safety, and this is a good week to learn it. But if you drive, the Minnesota Driver’s Manual includes what you need to know on pages 38 and 39. Please read it and think about your responsibility for all our children next time you see the big yellow bus.

Crime Prevention Takes a Village — So Let’s Move There

Posted October 16, 2014
October is Crime Prevention Month, and it’s more than an awareness event. This is a month dedicated to neighborhoods and communities — a time to find resources you need to make yourself, your family, your schools and your businesses safer.
People tend to assign the job of crime prevention entirely to their law enforcement agencies. They watch bad news on TV and call for more policing, assuming that greater law enforcement presence will prevent the crimes that plague their communities. But it’s not that simple. Even with police doing everything they can, crime may decline, but never disappear. It begins to feel overwhelming.
There is good news, though. People across the nation are partnering with law enforcement and other agencies to make their communities safer.
They say “It takes a village,” right? The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) provides information on creating your own crime-prevention “village.” They’re the ones with the McGruff mascot — the bloodhound in the detective-style raincoat — and their site is easy to read and fun to explore.
Man in handcuffs that was arrested for committing a crime.The NCPC site will take you from safe firearms storage (“Never let your gun get into the wrong hands”) and Internet safety to scam detection and identity theft. The “What You Can Do” link lists some actions you can take right now to make a difference. And you don’t have to be a professional community organizer to get things done. You can make a few phones calls or talk to a few neighbors. You’ll be surprised how many people want someone to get the ball rolling so they can follow along.
And if you have teenagers, look at the NCPC “Teens, Crime and the Community” link. There are ideas there you may never have considered.
More good news: The National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) has partnered with the NCPC and the National Sheriff’s Association (NSA) in the “Celebrate Safe Communities” movement. NCJRS and NSA provide online resources for people who are aware of the need for crime prevention and looking for opportunities to take action. They list publications and resources for neighborhoods and communities, businesses, schools and families.
Timely, compelling topics include “Keeping Kids Out of Gangs” and “Sex Offenders in the Community,” along with advice on preventing robberies and workplace violence. You may also be interested in starting a neighborhood watch group.
Crime is pretty much everywhere. In your town, in your neighborhood, your challenges may be different from those 10 miles away. But whatever you’re facing, Crime Prevention Month is a great time to look for the information you need to start changing things.
The role of law enforcement in all this remains essential. In most cases, if you make an action plan, you’ll find yourself partnering with law enforcement agencies — and you’ll become essential to their success, too. Increased police presence can go a long way in deterring crime, but the combination of police and community effort works best. During Crime Prevention Month, let your imagination go; think about what your community could be like if more residents committed themselves to keeping it safe.
Then go online and find one thing you can do. Ask someone to do it with you, and watch the movement grow. It really does take a village, and you can start building your village today.

Be Cozy — Not Careless

Posted October 13, 2014
Multiple choice question: How do you stay warm in the winter?
  • I turn up the forced-air furnace.
  • I use electric baseboard heat throughout the house.
  • I use one of the above in combination with an alternative heat source like a fireplace, a wood stove or a space heater.
Many Minnesotans are too cold or too frugal to make it through a winter — especially one like last year — with a single heat source at home. It’s much more pleasant to heat part of the house with a furnace and stay extra cozy in the den or basement with a wood burner or a space heater.
There’s a trade-off, though. Those extra heat sources may not be as safe as your furnace. Their safety depends on how much the user knows about them — and sometimes that’s not much.
Your wood-burning stove, for example, is safe only as long as nobody hangs a sweater on a chair too close to it. It’s safe as long as the rattan rocker isn’t pushed up against it, and hot embers aren’t shoveled into a combustible container. (Yes, people do that.)
The space heater isn’t a mitten-drying machine or a seat-heater for an upholstered chair. (Yes, people do that, too.) But it can start a fire that spreads fast and hot, creating extra-nasty, poisonous smoke because of the unnatural fibers in modern home furnishings.
Students warming up by a fireplace.
Photo: Students studying by an indoor fireplace.
Last year in Minnesota, 370 home fires were started by fireplaces (or creosote-packed chimneys), fixed heating units (like stoves) or portable heaters (mostly electric.)
Let’s be honest, though. The heat sources didn’t start the fires; it was the people using them who did that, so the fires are preventable. If you mentally checked #3 at the top, you should:
Make sure your space heater is UL tested and approved to be used where you want it.

1. Keep it three feet from anything — ANYTHING — that will burn.
2. Check the cord now and then; if it’s hot, unplug it.
3. Don’t hang anything on it, even if it’s cold.
4. Explain to children and teens that the heater can be dangerous, and tell them how to treat it.
5. Do not, no matter how cold it is or how much you want to, leave a space heater running all night. They’re not meant to do that. They can fall over, short out or otherwise go crazy while you’re sleeping. Turn it off and unplug it when you go to bed.
Make sure your wood stove is properly installed and vented.
1. Follow the manufacturer instructions that come with it, and if you buy the stove with the house, get it checked.
2. Keep a safe distance between the stove (and its flue pipe) and the floor, the walls and anything else that can burn.
3. Check all the connections on the stove each season; burn clean, dry wood; and call your fire department with safety questions. They won’t think you’re weird. They’ll think you’re smart.
Have your chimney inspected annually and cleaned when necessary.

1. Creosote build-up causes chimney fires, but structural issues are dangerous, too.
2. Use a fireplace screen or glass doors. You can’t control the flying sparks, and fire can smolder for hours before it becomes a murderous nightmare.
Finally, make sure there are smoke detectors throughout your home, and keep the batteries fresh. People forget the rules. Smoke detectors don’t.
Here’s to a warm, cozy winter at your house — with all the knowledge and caution you need to keep from being left out in the cold.

Working Smoke Alarms, Young Girl's Quick Actions Prevent Tragedy in Paynesville Fire

As Fire Prevention Week Continues, Woman Hopes Her Story Emphasizes Importance of Smoke Alarms
Posted October 9, 2014
Her bedroom door closed, Karen Hubert slept as her home filled with smoke early one summer morning a few months back. Fortunately for the 59-year-old Paynesville woman, her young granddaughter is not such a sound sleeper.
“She saved both of our lives,” Hubert said of 11-year-old Morgan’s quick thinking on July 23. “Things would have been very different if she wasn’t there or if those smoke alarms weren’t working.”
Fire at home in Paynesville Minn.
Photo: Fire at a home in Paynesville, Minn.
But the alarms were working — and they woke Morgan. Initially thinking the oven was beeping, Hubert said Morgan contemplated shutting her bedroom door and going back to sleep.
Instead, Morgan crawled out of bed and pounded on her grandmother’s door.
“She told me the alarms were going off and that she thought there was smoke in the back of the house,” Hubert said.
Morgan was right. The porch was on fire.  Hubert and Morgan escaped the house as the smoke thickened. Moments later, flames had taken over parts of the house.
The Huberts’ house was destroyed that day. But Karen Hubert is certain her home’s working smoke alarms and her granddaughter prevented further tragedy. Hubert said her room was far enough away from the fire and the sounding alarm that she’s not sure she would have woken up in time to escape.
“I think about how different it would have been if Morgan had just rolled over and gone back to sleep. We both wouldn’t be here, I know that
for sure,” Hubert said. “The fire and smoke moved so quickly.”

Damage from fire a home in Paynesville, Minn.
Photo: Damage from fire at a home in Paynesville, Minn.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, working smoke alarms cut the chance of dying in a residential fire in half. That’s why Hubert is glad to share her story during Fire Prevention Week; this year’s theme is “Working Smoke Alarms Save Lives: Test Yours Every Month.”
Minnesota State Fire Marshal Bruce West said stories like the Huberts’ prove smoke alarms can provide those crucial extra moments to escape a burning building.

“In a fire, seconds count,” West said. “Working smoke alarms save lives. It’s that simple.”

Hubert said she was reminded that day of several important lessons — lessons she shares often: Test your smoke alarms regularly, replace the batteries twice a year and make sure there are smoke alarms throughout the home and in bedrooms.

Hubert is not sure her granddaughter realizes the importance of her actions in July — but she’ll always be grateful.

“I’m very proud of her,” Hubert said. “I’m thankful for my life but I’m so
thankful that she got out, too.”

Congratulate Yourself - It's Fire Prevention Week

Posted October 6, 2014
National Fire Prevention Week runs October 4 through 11, and Minnesota is celebrating all the fires that didn’t destroy anything this year, and all the fires that will never happen, because you and the fire service, the State Fire Marshal Division, teachers and parents — pretty much everybody who pays attention to the issue — has kept them from happening.
They say you can’t count negatives. You can’t enumerate things that never took place. But it’s a shame, because many, many fires have been prevented by people who understood just a few simple things. They’re things like:
  • It CAN happen to you. Logically, there is no reason on earth to believe that a fire will never take place in your home or business, or in any location where you happen to be. Firefighters will tell you one of the things they hear most often from choking, watery-eyed, grateful-to-be-alive people who are watching their lives go up in smoke is, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” Well, believe it. In 2013, there was one structure fire reported about every 90 minutes in Minnesota. Those included a lot of houses in which no one believed it would happen to them. Thinking about it that way makes you more careful, and that’s good.
  • The majority of home fires are caused by careless cooking or careless use of heating equipment. Translated into “FIRE!” that means leaving food unattended on the stove, or placing a space heater too close to anything that can burst into flames. This information is easy to put into use. Never walk away from a hot stove, and keep every form of heat away from any form of fuel. And there you are. You’ve just prevented who-knows-how-many fires.
  • Electrical fires and open flames just about split third place; again, not rocket science. Don’t overload your circuits or use extension cords as permanent solutions. Respect the power of electricity to start fires, and don’t let a bad situation continue by assuming that because a fire didn’t start today, it won’t start tomorrow. (Many people have made unwise assumptions; some of them don’t have houses anymore.)
  • And open flames are pretty easy to beat. Blow out the candles when you’re not watching them. Use a fireplace screen. Store the embers in concrete or metal until they’re dead as a doornail. Keep the matches stashed where nobody who hasn’t read this blog can reach them. Every time you do one of these things, you’re preventing a fire.
Testing a smoke alarm
Photo: Testing a smoke alarm to make sure it works properly
Those aren’t all the reasons fires start, but you can find the rest by looking at the State Fire Marshal’s annual Fire in Minnesota report. There are facts in there that will surprise you. And if you’re interested in non-existent fires, it’s information you should know.
Finally, because even well-intentioned people occasionally forget the rules, know this:
If there is a fire, you’re not required to die in it. You can prevent that, too. Install smoke alarms in your house and keep the batteries fresh. Put one in each bedroom and one in the hallway outside each sleeping area. Make sure they’re on every level of the house. Test them once a month or so (this requires pushing a button) and replace them every ten years.
Smoke alarms save hundreds of lives every year. But we’re counting things that didn’t happen, so in fact, they prevent hundreds of deaths and injuries by giving people time to escape.
Learn more, and take a quiz about smoke alarms. Then, during Fire Prevention Week, share this information with your family and friends so they can congratulate themselves, too!