Baltimore County Now
Captain Lonnie Ledford, Baltimore County Fire Department
Summer in the mid-Atlantic means hot, humid days and cooler nights, and there is always a possibility of thunderstorms. Meteorologists use modern Doppler radar and computer models to track and predict the path of weather events that affect our area. However, without individuals reacting properly to these warnings, many structures are damaged, and individuals are put at unnecessary risk.
How can you prepare for and minimize the potential damages caused by these common weather events? To begin, we have to understand the terminology used by the National Weather Service when they issue notices. The term watch when used in conjunction with a weather event is the less immediately threatening. A watch indicates that the potential for a weather event exists in our area, and preparations should be made; however, the event may not actually occur or it may go around certain areas. Daily activities may continue with a watchful eye on the sky and ear to a radio. A weather event warning, on the other hand, means that conditions are being observed and a weather event is currently happening in the area or is deemed to be imminent within one-half to one hour. Precautions should be taken immediately to secure property and protect yourself and your family. Outdoor activities should be postponed or ceased.
Another term that needs to be understood is the National Weather Service’s use of the word severe. A thunderstorm is classified as severe when it has the potential for wind gusts of 58 mph or when it produces hail one inch in diameter. (A good visual gauge to use is that a US quarter ($0.25) is approximately one inch in diameter.) Hail can damage glass, such as skylights or windows, and it can damage vehicles and hurt or possibly kill animals that are left outside. Bring animals indoors, and place vehicles in garages.
While all severe thunderstorms have the potential for triggering tornados, hail size is good indicator of the potential of formation of tornados. Stronger cyclonic updrafts create larger hail sizes, and this can be indicative of the increased danger of a potential tornado. Lightening, while dangerous, is not included in the National Weather Service’s definition of severe because even less damaging thunderstorms can still produce significant amounts of lightening and lightning strikes.
The United States faces approximately 100,000 thunderstorms per year, and only about ten percent of those are classified as “severe thunderstorms” by the National Weather Service. Severe thunderstorm warnings should be taken seriously, and protective measures should be put into place as soon as possible.
There are several things you can do to prepare for a severe thunderstorm. The first consideration should be finding adequate shelter. Second, there are several life threatening situations that many people do not consider during a severe thunderstorm. The most obvious, and dramatic, is the potential for lightening strikes. Lightning strikes happen in four different ways.
1. Direct strike – the lightening leader comes down and hits the object or person directly. The person or object becomes part of the discharge pathway to the ground. While this type of pathway is not very common, it usually occurs in large open space areas. If caught outside in one of these areas, make yourself as small as possible by crouching down as low as possible, placing your hands on your knees, ducking your head and raising your heels off of the ground. The only parts of your body that should be in contact with the ground are the balls of your feet and your toes. This position offers the best protection when shelter is not immediately available.
2. Side flash or side splash strike – lightning strikes a taller object and jumps to an individual or object nearby, essentially creating a shorter pathway to the ground. Care should be taken to avoid being close to taller objects during a storm. Trees and other tall objects may provide some protection from the rain, but they also are prime targets for lightning strikes, so avoid using them as shelter during a storm.
3. Ground current – lightning strikes a tree or other object and the lightning’s energy is transferred to the ground, where it moves out laterally. If a person or animal is in the area of the lightning strike, they could potentially become a victim of ground current. This type of strike is the most common in the fatalities of livestock and other animals.
4. Conduction – metal objects such as pipes, landline telephone wires and fences are good conductors of electricity. While the metal does not attract the lightning, it provides a superior pathway for its conduction to ground. Try to avoid contact with any metal objects during a storm. Avoid taking showers and using sinks and other plumbing fixtures during a storm, due to its potential to conduct the current if the structure is struck by lightning.
In Let’s Talk About the Weather Part Two, I’ll offer several more storm preparation tips to help keep you and your family safe this storm season.
Fire Chief John Hohman
In 2005, a 48-year-old man and his two stepdaughters, aged 14 and 15, died in their Essex townhouse after inhaling carbon monoxide.
In 2009, a 44-year-old woman died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her Fullerton apartment. The CO also sickened three others in the home, though they survived.
In 2010, two men, construction workers who boarded with a family in Pikesville, died in a CO incident. The house was a rental property.
Today, I am proud to say that we have come a long way toward preventing senseless deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. Since the 2010 fatalities, Baltimore County has reported no carbon monoxide related deaths.
As a Fire Chief with more than 35 years in the fire service, I know this reduction in CO-related tragedies did not happen by accident. We can be grateful to the life-saving carbon monoxide detector – and a piece of County legislation enacted several years ago requiring CO detectors in all rental properties.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas created by the incomplete burning of fuels, such as oil, natural gas, kerosene, coal and wood. Many household appliances use these fuels. If you have a clothes dryer, water heater, an oven or fireplace that uses natural gas, CO buildup can happen. Wood burning fireplaces and stoves, as well as kerosene space heaters, also produce CO. If not detected, CO buildup from these appliances can seriously injure or even kill you.
The dangers of carbon monoxide escalate during periods of extreme heat and extreme cold. On a freezing cold day – like the record-breaking cold we have felt this month – homes are tightly sealed to keep in the warmth. You may have the heat turned up, the fireplace burning or a space heater running. If CO leaks because one of these devices is malfunctioning, it has no choice but to build up.
Common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headaches, nausea, dizziness, irritability, shortness of breath, weakness and fatigue. One of the most dangerous things about CO poisoning is that none of the early symptoms indicate a life-threatening situation. If undetected, the deadly gas can kill without your even knowing it is there. High levels of CO can kill within hours. Low levels will build up over time and slowly make you sick.
Since the 2009 legislation, the number of CO calls handled by the fire department has increased. There were 704 CO calls received in 2013 alone. And this is good.
People now call the fire department when their CO alarms sound. This means that they are aware of the leak and are getting assistance before it is too late. The detectors are programmed to go off when levels of CO are very low, before the average adult experiences any symptoms.
Significantly, deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning plummeted after enforcement of Baltimore County’s law requiring CO alarms in rental properties. In addition, a state law passed in 2007 required all new construction to have CO alarms. I have no doubt that these laws are responsible for reducing serious carbon monoxide incidents.
Even with these advances, we need to do more to educate about carbon monoxide. This month, the Baltimore County Fire Department responded to a call in Randallstown. A mother and two sons were transported to the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, seriously ill from CO poisoning.
They were lucky. The family survived despite very high levels of CO in the house -- 780 parts per million. This family’s house did not fall under any of the laws requiring CO alarms.
Let this near-tragedy be a reminder of the importance of having a CO alarm in every home.
Carbon monoxide related injuries and deaths are 100 percent preventable. Having a fully-functioning CO detector in your home can save your life.
Battalion Chief Jennifer Utz
Everyone has a favorite time of year, and although I no longer welcome the cold Maryland winters, I do long for December. For me, it is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Whether cutting down a Christmas tree, decorating the house, baking cookies or socializing with friends, I couldn’t find more happiness than I do during this time of year.
Still, as I relax by the fire, watch the lights glimmer and listen to the sounds of the season, I am reminded of the danger that all of this beauty can bring. In my nearly 14 years with the Baltimore County Fire Department, I have witnessed a lot of misfortune – but it is especially devastating when fires happen at such a wonderful time of year.
The good news is that fire is preventable. Here are reminders to keep your family safe as you celebrate.
· Cooking. Unattended cooking is the leading cause of house fires and associated injuries. When cooking your holiday favorites, stay in the kitchen at all times. Do not let children near ovens and range tops. If the oven catches fire, turn it off, keep the door closed and call 911. Always keep a lid nearby if a pot catches fire; use the lid to smother the fire. Never put water on a grease fire; it will spread the fire! Get out of the house, and stay out until the fire department arrives.
· Decorations: Look for packages marked as flame resistant or retardant. Always keep combustible decorations away from any type of heat source. If you are using mini lights, string no more than three sets together and make sure the cords are not damaged. If you choose screw-in bulbs, use no more than 50 per set; and always check the manufacturers label on LED light sets for directions. Keep extension cords to a minimum, never run them under carpets, and if used outside keep plugs and cords free from standing water or snow. Do not use nails to hang lights, always use clips that won’t damage or cut through the cords. Call an electrician if lights flicker or fuses blow. Finally, always turn off lights and decorations when you go to bed or leave the house.
· Candles: Keep open flame candles at least 12 inches from anything that can catch fire. Watch children and pets carefully when using candles. Use a sturdy candle holder. Consider electric or flameless candles.
· Christmas Trees: The smell and tradition of a fresh cut tree is priceless. If your family chooses a live tree, keep it watered daily. Always unplug the lights before going to bed or leaving the home, and keep the tree at least three feet from heat sources.
· Carbon Monoxide: One final warning during this holiday season is to have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. A faulty furnace, water heater or other gas appliance can emit carbon monoxide. Clogged chimneys, running vehicles and generators too close to the house also will cause a buildup of this deadly gas.
As you celebrate the holidays and spend time with family, remember these tips and stay safe!