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Murphy's Law and Emergency Preparedness

27 Jun, 1996

This article was written and submitted to us by David Hooper from Vancouver, BC.

David says, "I am a Canadian Civil Servant, with the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, in the British Columbia Region. Part of my job responsibilities involve Emergency Preparedness for First Nations Communities."

Remember Murphy's Law?

"If anything can go wrong, it will... at the worst possible time."

Your car will start, and run reliably EVERY TIME, except when you are trying to rush someone to the hospital. Your home furnace will NEVER break down unless it is VERY cold outside. Your home refrigerator will only "die" during a hot spell. Yes, I know, that's when the pieces are under the most strain, but it is also when Murphy is most active.

Dikes along rivers are designed to hold back flood waters. Usually, earthquake strengthening is not a part of their design. The theory goes: "A quake may weaken them, but what are the odds of a flood happening so soon after a 'quake that we wouldn't have a chance to strengthen/repair them?" Does anyone see this as a golden opportunity for Murphy to wreak havoc?

The odds of a prolonged power outage are greatest in winter because:

  1. That is when there is the most stress on the system,
  2. That is when the winter storms put the lines in greatest danger,
  3. Murphy knows that this is the time that such an outage will cause the most inconvenience due to severe temperatures combined with short daylight hours,
  4. All of the above.

The correct answer is (4), All of the above.

In many parts of the world, most of North America in fact, survival gear, reserves of food, water, and heating/power equipment must take this into account. What good are your reserves if they are frozen into the ground so you can't get at them?

Many of the survival tips that I have seen are geared towards California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Earthquake threats seem to be the main area of focus.

Let's look some other parts of the nation(s). If you live in Minnesota or Manitoba, where "forty below" isn't just the name of a movie, how will you cope with a 3 day power outage? A six or eight hour blackout could damage your home severely. If you live in the snow belt, read on. If you are in a mountain area of many states or provinces, a quake on the coast might cost you your supplies of natural gas, and probably WILL cause power failures. (And Murphy will try very hard to make that quake hit when it is coldest!)

As your house loses heat, the water pipes freeze, then burst, then, when the power (and heat) comes back on and things thaw, you will have all the "fun" of a flooded house on top of all your other miseries! (Murphy strikes again!)

Do you have a back-up heating source that is NOT, in any way, dependent upon outside sources of energy? A small wood stove can keep the place from freezing up will not require supplies of natural gas, or heating oil, and, best of all, requires no electricity! You think your natural gas furnace will be OK? And just how will it "kick in", or circulate heat without power for the thermostat, the blower or pump? Ever think how your oil-fired furnace will function if the atomizer pump is out of action?

Where is your woodpile? Is it frozen up? When you are in a crisis is NOT the time to start splitting wood. That is precisely when Ol' Murphy will cause the ax handle to break, or worse, have the ax glance off the frozen log and hit you!

Perhaps you think the kerosene heater you got last year will do? Where is it? Can you find it readily? How much kerosene do you have on hand? Enough for several days? How old is the kerosene? Have you practiced lighting that thing? Have you thought about how you will VENT it? Which window will you have open to get fresh oxygen in? Are there pipes nearby that will freeze due to this draft? (If you have a hot water heating system, it will probably have pipes along all outside walls, with radiators under every window!)

DO NOT (repeat, DO NOT!) run a barbecue, or camp stove indoors. You will die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Any auxiliary heating equipment MUST BE installed in such a way as to be safe, with vents to outdoors to get rid of gases, and a supply of oxygen for the heater and for you.

If you assume that oil, or natural gas will be OK, (just the power is out) then, WHERE IS YOUR STANDBY GENERATOR? (And how big is the fuel storage/supply for it?) Is your generator stored outside, in the unheated garage/storage shed? Have you tried starting that sucker at minus forty? How 'bout at minus twenty? Did you succeed in getting it going?

Years ago, when I lived in a part of the world where it got COLD from time to time, I had a snow blower that always ran great and started on the first pull, UNLESS IT WAS REALLY COLD OUT. Just great. First time we had a blizzard, lots of snow in my driveway, I spent 3 hours (I'm stubborn) trying to get it started! (And then shoveled the driveway by hand!) Gasoline doesn't vaporize well in cold weather, so machinery won't run well, and because oil gets so thick in the cold, it is nearly impossible to spin the engine over fast enough to get it started.

The engine on that snow blower may be just about the exact same one as you have on your generator! Is Murphy still here, looking over your shoulder with a big silly grin on his face? Gotcha! (For the snow blower, an electric starting kit cured the problem, but if you had electricity available to start the engine, you wouldn't need the generator at all, so THAT isn't an option!)

TIP: Keep the generator someplace WARM. When you need it, put it outside, THEN start it. If keeping it warm means "in the house", DO NOT keep the fuel supplies there (fire hazard). Leave the gas tank empty, fill it only when you are going to use it. Murphy is just waiting to get you that way, too.

Does your wood stove have a fire stop between it and the wall? How about UNDER the stove? (Let's not get warm by burning down the whole house!)

When was your chimney last cleaned? (Aren't chimney fires spectacular?)

What do you need to survive? Can you think of any conceivable set of circumstances that could deprive you of one or more of your survival needs? Murphy can, and will come up with something. All you have to do is out-think Murphy.

Start by finding your LOCAL emergency planning folks. They will have a better handle on the risks you face WHERE YOU LIVE, than I do, and what steps can be taken to be prepared. ("Be Prepared" is more than a Boy Scout motto.)

It's all up to you, but our old friend Murphy is waiting patiently for you to overlook something simple.

Whatever CAN go wrong, WILL go wrong, but only when you least expect it, are least prepared, and when you were "going to take care of it next week".