Cold Weather Response Plan discussed ahead of colder weather

 

Temperatures in the 80s didn't stop community health and safety leaders from discussing a cold snap, and their plans of how to handle it.

The Cold Weather Response Plan meeting, held Monday on an unseasonably warm autumn morning, outlined protocols of dealing with cold temperatures that are around the corner.

"Even though it's 80 degrees outside, it's a good time to think about smoke alarms and space heaters," Tyler Fire Marshal Paul Finley said. "We will have our first structure fire related to space heaters pretty quick and, once they start, it becomes a very common thing.

"Between the months of November and January, there's a spike in structure fires, fire fatalities and carbon monoxide poisoning," he said. "We see the upward trend starting about this time."

The plan itself largely focuses on severe inclement and icy weather, but the roundtable discussion was on the need for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in East Texas homes.

Fire and health officials suggest keeping a carbon monoxide detector inside closed garages.

Even in all-electric homes, without gas-powered appliances, turning on a car inside a closed garage can cause exhaust to build up to dangerous levels.

When it's cold outside, residents may let their vehicles warm up without thinking about the toxic gas byproduct created, and a carbon monoxide detector will alert when the gas reaches dangerous levels.

That suggestion was one of many that came out of Monday's meeting outlining the plan, which received input from representatives from the East Texas Medical Center EMS, the Northeast Texas Public Health District, the Tyler Fire Department, the Smith County Fire Marshal's Office, the Tyler Police Department, Red Cross, the Tyler Fire Department and UT Health Northeast.

FIRE HAZARDS

People trying to stay warm cause a majority of house fires, officials said.

Space heaters are a big culprit. Fire officials suggest keeping them at least 3 feet from anything flammable.

If the heater is gas-powered, the group suggested cracking a window open to limit the exposure to carbon monoxide.

They also frowned on using a stove as a heating device.

Another fire culprit, especially during the holiday season, is overloading extension cords.

Plugging something directly into a wall outlet is the safest option, and surge protectors are safer than many extension cords.

If an extension cord is used, it should be given space - and not be put under a rug or within a tight space where heat can be trapped.

CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTORS

Homes with gas-powered appliances should have at least one carbon monoxide detector.

Homes that are all electric do not need a detector, but Finley still suggested putting one in the garage to prevent poisoning from car exhaust. Homes with a generator in the garage also should have a detector nearby.

Fire officials suggest having at least one detector for each level of a home, and more may be needed.

They also suggest having gas-powered appliances looked at by professional electricians to make sure they are operating properly.

"If you can't remember the last time you had it checked, then this is a good year to get it done," he said.

The same goes for fireplaces, he said. If a resident can't remember the last time their chimney was cleaned, then it's likely a good idea to get it checked, especially if the chimney burns wood.

SMOKE DETECTORS

Smoke detectors are an inexpensive device proven to save lives.

The group suggested that residents replace the batteries in their smoke alarms twice a year, preferably when the daylight saving time changes because it's easy to remember to change the batteries when changing your clocks.

That's coming up the first Sunday in November.

Smith County Fire Marshal Connie Wasson also suggested putting a smoke detector in attics, especially in older homes with aging or exposed wiring.

Tyler has a stockpile of smoke detectors on hand. Firefighters will install and test the devices for free, until the stash runs out.

"We will provide them for free of charge until we run out," Finley said. "Believe it or not, as hard as we try, we never run out. We have a stock of them right now."

The detectors are for homeowners, but by state law, all rental properties must have smoke detectors installed.

"Most of the time it's the tenant's responsibility to keep a fresh battery in them," Finley said. "It's law that (landlords) provide them."

The department also will conduct free checks to make sure the detectors are working properly and will give insight on the best places to put them.

Most fire departments in the unincorporated parts of the county don't have smoke detectors on hand, but Wasson said the departments try to help when they hear a home is without one.

There may be options for them to connect with the American Red Cross, which has a program to give out smoke detectors.

Last year, the Red Cross's local district of six counties, including Smith County, gave out 200 smoke detectors, said Matthew Brown, the Red Cross's local disaster program manager. The goal is to give out another 300 in the district this year, he said.

OTHER SUGGESTIONS

In cold weather, residents are asked to check on their neighbors - especially the elderly.

"Make sure their utilities are working well, and make sure they have good blankets," said Les Schminkey, interim Tyler fire chief.

Emergency officials also suggested being prepared for inclement weather while traveling by keeping warm blankets, water and nonperishable snacks in the car in case inclement weather restricts travel.

The full Cold Weather Response Plan will be available soon on a variety of websites as soon as it goes through a final revision process. Those websites include the Tyler Fire Department, Smith County and the city of Tyler.

Twitter: @TMTFaith

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Faith Harper is an East Texas native working for her hometown newspaper. She specializes in digital content for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. In her spare time, she loves tacos, road trips and is currently learning to sail.